Between Haven and Hell

Cincinnati has publicly positioned itself as an immigrant-friendly sanctuary city. But for many of our Hispanic residents, daily life is far from welcoming.

Through muffled tears, Maribel Trujillo Diaz relays her pain. “I never thought that God would allow all this hurt that I’m feeling.”

She is speaking from an undisclosed location in Mexico, too concerned for her own safety and that of her family to reveal the specific city. Since April, she has lived in a house rented by her parents. She spends her time helping her mother sell clothes at a street market and on Sundays attends mass. A devout Catholic, church gives Trujillo faint, fleeting flickers of hope. She says prayers and receives communion, finding strength in God and His will for her. Upon returning to her daily mundanity, she is once again despondent.

“I don’t have time or even the willingness to interact with people. I’m just so sad,” she says through a translator. “I never thought I would be away from my family or my kids.”

Illustration by Megan Scherer


For 15 years, Trujillo lived as an undocumented immigrant in Ohio, settling just north of Cincinnati in Fairfield. There she made a simple, happy life with her husband Gustavo and four children, all of whom were born in the U.S.: Oswaldo, Alexa, Gustavo, and Daniella, ages 15 to 4. The family loved dancing—Alexa to English music, her parents to Spanish tunes—on the new hardwood floors they laid in the living room. The children loved eating Trujillo’s homemade pozole and watching movies like Indiana Jones or Daniella’s favorite, Frozen. (“She would repeat it and repeat it and repeat it,” says Trujillo.)

On April 19, Trujillo was deported to Mexico. She had known the threat was real for a decade, after she was discovered as part of a Bush-era raid at the chicken processing plant where she worked. Still, removal seemed unlikely. She was a mother of four, and Daniella, who has recurring seizures, requires special medical care. Trujillo had no criminal record and was an active member of her parish, St. Julie Billiart in Hamilton. In legal terms, she was overflowing with “positive equities.” In non-legal terms, she was far from a “rapist,” a “criminal,” or a “bad hombre.”

Beginning on that warm Wednesday this past spring, Trujillo was taken from the regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Hamilton, shuttled to Morrow County Jail near Columbus, flown to Louisiana, and then flown over the border to Mexico with approximately 100 other deportees from across the country. “There were moms who were breast-feeding and couldn’t do it since they were away from their kids. There was a lady who had no husband who had to leave her kids with neighbors,” says Trujillo. “It was very sad, a place filled with so much sadness and so many injustices. We didn’t know what was happening with our kids or what was going to happen to us.”

Trujillo’s circumstances are the worst-case scenario for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Her story garnered attention from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and seemingly every major news outlet, all with some variation of the same headline: NONCRIMINAL MOTHER DEPORTED.

And it happened on the outskirts of a city that has attempted to ease the burden on immigrants in recent years. In 2015, Mayor John Cranley declared that he wanted to make Cincinnati “the most immigrant-friendly city in the country.” In January, he deemed Cincinnati a “sanctuary city,” an ambiguous, well-intentioned term that sounds welcoming, though comes devoid of any real legal meaning or status. The progressive, tolerant stances and rhetoric paint the city as a potential haven for immigrants. But the reality for those immigrants—especially the undocumented ones living under the current presidential regime in a city with a sparse foreign-born population—is far more complicated.


Sitting behind an empty desk as he prepares to switch offices, Alfonso Cornejo has a thick, gray mustache and a raspy Spanish accent. In Cincinnati, he is an OG in the Mexican immigrant community. He transferred from Procter & Gamble’s Mexico City offices to the company’s local headquarters in 1988 and has lived here ever since. Now, he runs his own consulting firm and is president of Cincinnati’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“When I came in 1988, there were two Mexican restaurants, both in Northern Kentucky,” Cornejo says. If he wanted to buy piñatas or find other pieces of his culture, he had to travel all the way to Chicago. “Driving four hours just to get a piece of your soul.”

Cornejo is a student of Cincinnati’s past and present. He’s an encyclopedia of census and immigration data, often asking and answering his own follow-up questions in the middle of a response. “Forty percent of all the Fortune 500 companies were created by immigrants. Procter & Gamble was created by immigrants. Kroger was created by immigrants. Macy’s. How many do you want?” Cornejo says. “You say, Well, why? When you come from the outside looking in, you see things that when you’re inside you cannot see.”

As Cornejo dives further into Cincinnati’s immigrant history, he cites a common sentiment reiterated by activists: We are a nation of immigrants, and many European immigrants were once persecuted in ways similar to how Mexican and Latino immigrants are treated today. In 1850, German immigrants accounted for approximately 29 percent of Cincinnati’s population, with Irish immigrants accounting for an additional 12 percent. As the Germans and Irish began to assimilate in the region, the antipathy toward other European immigrants grew. A special correspondence published by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1903 read, “Eight hundred thousand foreigners will land in America in 1903, according to government figures, and the bulk of them will come from Italy, Russia, and Austro-Hungary.” The article later clarified why it was important to single out those countries: “In a word, whereas we used to derive our immigrants from the hardy and intelligent Teutonic stock of Germany, Great Britain, and Scandinavia, we now get nearly all of the alien increment from races which are in all respects the most impoverished, physically and mentally, in Europe. Europe is literally dumping her surplus populations upon American shores.”

In the last century-plus, the immigrant population of Cincinnati, like that of many other cities in the Midwest, has dropped precipitously. Only 4.3 percent of the current population was born in another country, ranking 257th among all metropolitan areas and behind comparable cities such Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. (Though, in fairness, none of those cities crack the top 100.)

Every chance Cornejo gets, he extols the virtues of Cincinnati. He points to the increase in Mexican restaurants and Hispanic stores around town as a positive, and he believes that Cincinnati can grow. In order to do that, however, Cornejo claims addressing that lack of immigrant population, in particular with Hispanic immigrants, will be a key factor. “It’s a very attractive city. I love this city. However, there’s a feeling of, you know, This is not for you,” he says. “If a city or a metropolitan area grows 10 percent, the number of Hispanics in that area grow more than 10 percent. You tell me, Why? The reason is they provide the human energy that originates to excel.”

The Hispanic Chamber is not a social services organization, but Cornejo still fields numerous calls for help. “If there is one issue we have passion to try to fix, and we have not been able to fix, it’s the bullying of Hispanic-looking kids,” he says. “We thought it was getting better, but now we have a peak back again.”

Hispanics stand out in Cincinnati. That, coupled with the election of President Donald Trump, who hurls immigration and racial discrimination into the forefront of public discourse, appears to have sparked an uptick in bullying of Hispanic community members, not to mention increased side-eyes at Kroger. But for undocumented immigrants, it stokes a fear that has always existed.


Manuel and Gabriela Avila started their family in Veracruz, Mexico, a state located about 220 miles east of Mexico City along the Gulf coast. They lived in a tiny home, with no running water and a cardboard roof. “One day when there was a huge gush of wind, it actually took our roof completely away,” Gabriela recalls through a translator. (Gabriela and Manuel’s first names have been changed due to their undocumented status.)

The two had their first child, Heyra—her real name—in Veracruz. They each worked and tried to balance their schedules so that when one was working, the other was watching Heyra. (It was obvious when Manuel had been watching her because the new dad seemed to always put her shoes on the wrong feet.) They quickly realized that Heyra’s opportunities would be limited while living in poverty, so the couple laid out plans to cross the border into the U.S. “When we decided to make the move, we didn’t really know what that entailed, what was going to happen,” Manuel says through a translator. “We just knew that we had to do something to have a better future for our new daughter.”

They had to cross separately, leaving Heyra with her grandparents until they were able to establish roots in the U.S. With his clothes tied in a plastic bag, Manuel forded the Rio Grande River and navigated the sewage system, climbing through pipes and not seeing sunlight until he reached San Antonio. Gabriela had more difficulty. “I got caught around six times by enforcement, and there are people at the border that are really bad,” she says.

The couple eventually met up with family in Northern Kentucky, and, after finding steady work, returned to Mexico to bring their then 4-year-old daughter across the border through Arizona. Manuel spent the nights sleeping outside on the cold desert sand while Gabriela and Heyra, their “good luck charm,” huddled together inside a truck.

The Avilas have now been living in Northern Kentucky for 17 years. Manuel works as a crane operator, and Gabriela is a stay-at-home-mom. Their family has grown too, with the birth of three more children. In their quaint home on a quiet cul-de-sac, Manuel and Gabriela sit on their couch, framed photos of their children arranged in a family tree above their head and a Bible and church bulletin on the coffee table. Their lives are established in Northern Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean they live comfortably. Each day, they’re reminded of their undocumented status.

“When mom or dad will leave, you don’t know if they’ll make it back,” says Manuel. “And if you don’t make it back, that uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen to you or your family is very, very difficult. It’s not something normal or something you can get used to, it’s just something that you live with.”

“[We] just try to live a quiet life as invisible as possible,” adds Gabriela.

Their good luck charm, however, has become a voice for immigrants’ rights. Now a 21-year-old junior at Xavier University, Heyra remembers hiding her undocumented status for a long time. “Whenever we would go on a trip somewhere or drive any distance, my dad drives like a grandpa,” she says. “He’s always very conscious with anything that could ever happen.”

Driving without a license is one of the biggest risks for an undocumented immigrant. An infraction as small as a speeding ticket or a missing taillight has the potential to lead to deportation. In order to work, though, many have to drive. Like her parents, Heyra drove without a license as a teenager to her job at a Mexican restaurant. Unlike her parents, though, she has openly shared her story since she was a student at Ryle High School. “I didn’t have a problem with telling people that I wasn’t a citizen,” Heyra says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the only one they’ll ever interact with knowingly, the only immigrant that they might hear their story.’”

In 2012, Heyra was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allowed her to obtain a driver’s license and work permit temporarily, though it did not provide her with full legal status. She is what’s commonly referred to as a “Dreamer,” a child brought to the U.S. by her parents. (The name stems from the DREAM Act, a long-gestating bill aimed at aiding undocumented children that has never been passed by Congress.)

On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the DACA program would end in six months. Days later, Heyra, who measures maybe five feet tall standing on a milk crate, says she wasn’t shocked. “I knew that it ending would always be a possibility,” she says.

“I actually cried when they announced that,” says Gabriela. “But once I saw that my daughter was out there and fighting and still hopeful, that gave me hope.”


DACA has been a positive step for many undocumented immigrants, allowing them to open bank accounts, drive legally, and not work under the table. The ramifications of the program, however, are complicated in the Hispanic community. There are an estimated 128,000 undocumented immigrants living in Ohio and Kentucky, but only 22,000 were eligible for DACA.

“DACA, it’s like a love/hate kind of thing,” says José Cabrera, a local DACA recipient. “There’s a lot of good things with DACA. But it also marginalized a group of folks. Because of DACA, we forced another minority within our minority. We started having hierarchies of the good minorities versus the bad minorities. Even now [you’ll often hear], These are good kids, they were brought here with no fault of their own, which increases the criminalization of my mom and my uncle.”

Cabrera, who is also from Veracruz, remembers when his mother and father passed him off to a coyote, or smuggler, who brought him to the U.S. The 4-year-old boy was wrapped in a blue blanket and yanked from his mother by the coyote. “I felt his arms pull me away,” says Cabrera. “I thought my mom sold me.”

After a trying childhood that saw his father, an abusive drug addict, abandon his family when José was 8, Cabrera has become an ardent immigrant activist. He first began speaking to groups numbering in the thousands as an eighth grader, and he’s now the immigration program organizer of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center’s Youth Educating Society (YES) initiative.

Cabrera is constantly thinking of ways to lobby government, including local officials, to help immigrants, especially undocumented ones. He points to a scholarship fund for undocumented students that the city of Chicago started. He cites the 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., that allow undocumented immigrants to receive a driver’s license. He wants something more substantial than sanctuary city declarations.

“I feel that behind it, [the local officials are] good people. They’re helping out. But sometimes I think what a lot of people forget is checking up with the people they want to help,” says Cabrera. “They’re passing legislation that says they support us, but there’s very little support that I see from the actual city. I think the best way to support someone is actually asking, ‘What do you really need and how can we make that happen?’”

The city has taken concrete measures to make Cincinnati more immigrant-friendly. In May 2016, city council voted to recognize identification cards issued by the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati. The city, along with the chamber of commerce, also started the Compass web portal to provide job assistance for immigrants. However, in part because Hamilton County—not the city—operates the jail system, there hasn’t been the kind of resistance to federal laws at a local level that cities like Chicago and San Francisco have shown.

In an e-mailed statement, Cranley signaled the failings of this blurred middle ground, stating that the sanctuary city resolution was passed “for the purpose of ensuring that the City remains a welcoming and inclusive city for all immigrants to live, work, and visit. The City’s resolution declaring itself a Sanctuary City is the exercise of constitutionally-protected free speech, which we did to express our profound disagreement with President Trump’s orders and to stand in solidarity with Syrian refugees. The City of Cincinnati has not and will not violate federal laws.”


The pushback immigrants generally face whittles down to one basic point: the U.S. was founded on laws and the basis that, if those laws are broken, there must be repercussions. After the DACA cancellation announcement, President Trump said in a statement, “We must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

It is a refrain that immigrants and those working to help them have heard many times before. “We’ve had laws throughout our history that have been unjust,” says Kathleen Kersh, Maribel Trujillo Diaz’s attorney. “Slavery was legal. Women weren’t allowed to vote. Just because we have a law doesn’t mean that it is a) moral and b) functional. Yes, we do have an obligation to follow the law, and I encourage my clients to do that to the best of their abilities. But unjust laws need to be challenged.”

As it stands now, the law leaves open the possibility that people like Gabriela and Manuel Avila could suffer the same fate as Trujillo, whose American-born children don’t understand why she can’t come home. Trujillo lives in a constant state of worry about her family; every time she eats, she wonders if her children have eaten. She wants them to join her in Mexico, but they have told her they don’t want to. “I understand because it’s very difficult. It’s a different world,” Trujillo says. “They say, ‘Mom, I don’t know how to read or write perfectly, I don’t know the history of Mexico. I know the history of the United States.’ ” Undocumented immigrants without standing deportation orders are less likely to be deported in the near future, in part due to the long legal process. As Kersh explains, Trujillo was low-hanging fruit; she had already received her deportation order in 2014 but was allowed to stay under an order of supervision. Despite all that she had in her favor, because her legal course of action was complete, she was an easy target for removal. Kersh hasn’t seen as many new cases appear as she anticipated, but uncertainty lingers.

“It’s really hard to let your guard down too much,” says Kersh. “You just can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

For undocumented immigrants, that unpredictability has been a staple of life since the moment they arrived. Yet many still hold out hope that they will be able to live simple, full lives in this country, without the fear of deportation.

La esperanza muere al ultimo,” says Gabriela.

Faith is what dies at the very end.


Para una versión en español de esta historia, haga clic aquí.

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