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Seeking asylum: A journey to escape Congolese political violence and find peace in Northeast Ohio

Updated: December 13, 2022 at 10:11 AM EST
This is the story of how Jonas Mbonga traveled from the DRC to Northeast Ohio and his experiences of the U.S. asylum system as first published in Freshwater Cleveland. It is part one in a four-part series studying the inequalities in the healthcare system for members of the refugee community in Cleveland.

When Jonas Mbonga crossed the border from Mexico to Texas in the summer of 2018, he thought it would be the end of a long and dangerous journey. Instead, it was the start of an even more difficult path — navigating the immigration detention system in the United States.

“I have no enemies,” Mbonga said. “But if I did, I would tell them, don’t risk that experience.”

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mbonga fled to Angola to escape an increasingly violent political situation. From there, he took a boat to Brazil, then traveled north by land to the United States.

When he reached the Texas border in July 2018, he was one of only a handful of people who were allowed to cross.

“I thought that meant I was safe,” he said. “But instead, they put me in prison while I applied for asylum.”

He spent the next 21 months in immigration detention — an experience he said had long-reaching effects on his mental and physical health.

The immigration detention system: Unhealthy and unequal

Mbonga’s story is not unique. In 2019 alone, more than 500,000 immigrants were placed in immigration detention. The majority (70%) of detained immigrants are held in privately-run, for-profit detention centers, like CoreCivic where Mbonga was held in Youngstown. 

Many of those apprehended at the border are asylum seekers — fleeing violence, oppression or persecution in their home countries, according to a report by the American Immigration Council. To be allowed to stay in the United States, asylum seekers must pass an interview demonstrating that they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries. Those apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may be forced to wait for their interviews in detention centers. There, they often face unsanitary and unsafe living conditions, according to Freedom for Immigrants (FFI), a group that monitors the conditions facing immigrants detained by ICE.

Health Challenges

A report from Freedom for Immigrants indicates that the top complaint amongst people in immigration detention were medical neglect and nutritional issues.

“I was always sick,” Mbonga said. “I was always taking medicine, and I couldn’t sleep.”

He attributes much of his health struggles to the mental and emotional consequences of being imprisoned.

Jonas Mbonga plays a pick-up game of soccer at the fields near St. Ignatius High School on Cleveland's West Side.
Joan Lederer
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Jonas Mbonga plays a pick-up game of soccer at the fields near St. Ignatius High School on Cleveland's West Side.

"All you have is the four walls around you, so you are always thinking, 'What’s going to happen? Good things or bad things?' I didn’t have any contact with my family, and they didn’t know that I was there.”

He said he saw fellow detainees struggle through similar issues.

“I saw people go crazy. I saw one man commit suicide.”

Mbonga said receiving healthcare from the prison was also a dehumanizing experience. Once, he was taken to the hospital, where he remained shackled to his bed while receiving care.

“I didn’t wear a jumpsuit in prison, but when I went to the hospital, they made us wear the orange suit,” he explained.

Accessing nutritious food was another challenge.

“The food was terrible and was always making me sick,” recounted Mbonga. “You could buy food from the canteen, but the food was much more expensive than what it cost outside. Even toothpaste was expensive. I realized then that all of this was just a business.”

Detaining undocumented immigrants is big business for the company that runs the jail where Mbonga was held, according to an investigation into CoreCivic from the publication Documented.

As the second largest for-profit prison provider in the United States, CoreCivic drew $579.4 million (29%) of its revenue in 2019 from contracts with ICE. 

Unequal Impacts

The immigration detention system is not only detrimental to migrants’ lives but disproportionately impacts Black immigrants, a report by Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) showed.

Black asylum seekers face higher rates of rejection of their asylum cases and are placed in solitary confinement at a rate six times higher than non-Black immigrants, according to the report.

They also face much longer periods in detention. While the average length of time in detention is 55 days, the report found that East African asylum seekers often spent much longer than that — with one asylum seeker from Rwanda spending 10 years in detention.

Getting Out

After two months in detention, Mbonga was able to connect with pro bono lawyers from Catholic Charities.

“Catholic charities serves detained migrants through three programs,” wrote Maureen DeVito, one of Mbonga’s lawyers. “We are listed as a ‘pro bono provider’ for the Cleveland immigration court and the list is given to each detainee. Clients also reach us by word-of-mouth within the jails or from friends and family in the community. Prior to COVID, we also conducted regular ‘Know your Rights’ presentations at local jails.”

Mbonga said his lawyers were crucial not only in helping him to get out but in maintaining hope while in prison.

“They are like my second mothers,” he said.

When Mbonga lost his first asylum case, a team of lawyers helped him file for an appeal. His appeal was rejected by the judge and after 17 months in Youngstown, Mbonga was moved to Geauga County Jail in Chardon. There, he said his mental and physical health continued to deteriorate.

“At one point, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore,” Mbonga said. “But my lawyers encouraged me.”

In March 2020, Mbonga said he found an unlikely rescue through COVID-19. Mbonga’s legal team filed an affidavit stating that his health would be at risk if he contracted the virus, allowing Mbonga to be released.

A Community of Support

Mbonga is still waiting on the results of his appeal. In the meantime, he’s living in Cleveland Heights, where he has both found and contributed to a community of support for asylum seekers and immigrants. He also connected with friend and neighbor Joan Lederer, who helped him find training courses in welding, and Americans Making Immigrants Safe (AMIS), a local group providing support to migrants.

“Once Mbonga was released, AMIS worked with several area faith organizations to put together funds to cover his rent and living expenses for two full years,” AMIS president Anne Hill wrote in an email.

Jones 2.jpg
Joan Lederer
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Jonas Mbonga volunteers at the Forest Hill [Presbyterian] Church’s food pantry, where he helps deliver food and other goods to a family being supported by AMIS and serves as a translator for other AMIS recipients.

She emphasizes Mbonga is playing a positive role in the Cleveland Heights community.

“Jonas has given back by working at the Forest Hill [Presbyterian] Church’s food pantry, by delivering food and other goods to a family being supported by AMIS, and by serving as a translator for other AMIS recipients,” she says.

If someone you know is detained in immigration detention, detainees contact Catholic Charities’ intake department at 216- 939-3769 or by email. Please be sure to include a name, alien number, and a good contact to reach out to outside of the jail. People interested in connecting with AMIS can contact them through the organization’s website.

Read part two in the series here. For more about how we produced this series click here:

This is a four-part series of stories on the barriers to health access in Northeast Ohio refugee communities produced as part of a Connecting the Dots between Race and Health project.

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media and funded by the Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.