Seeking asylum: A journey to escape Congolese political violence, find peace in Cleveland

This is part one in a three-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,” says Mbonga. “But if I did, I would tell them, don’t risk that experience.”

<span class="content-image-text">Jonas Mbonga</span>Jonas MbongaOriginally 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 says. “But instead, they put me in prison while I applied for asylum.”

He spent the next 21 months in immigration detention—an experience that 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. 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.

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 says. “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.

<span class="content-image-text">Jonas Mbonga</span>Jonas Mbonga"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 says he saw fellow detainees struggle through similar issues.

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

Mbonga says 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 explains.

Accessing nutritious food was another challenge.

“The food was terrible and was always making me sick,” recounts 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.”

Mbonga’s observations are backed by national statistics. 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 migrant’s lives, but unequal in its impact. A report by RAICES (The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) reveals that the immigration detention system disproportionately impacts Black immigrants.

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

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.

<span class="content-image-text">Jonas Mbonga</span>Jonas MbongaGetting 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,” writes 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 says 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 says.

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, his mental and physical health continued to deteriorate.

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

In March 2020, Mbonga 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 hasboth 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 AMIS (Americans Making Immigrants Safe), 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,” writes AMIS president Anne Hill.

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

“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.

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.

About the Author: Sydney Kornegay

Sydney Kornegay is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aidemocracy, The Columbia Star, and Observatario Economico. She has a master's degree in International Development and Economics from Fordham University and is the director of adult programming at Refugee Response in Cleveland.