Despite provocative sheriff, Hispanics thrive in Butler County, Ohio

One lawman’s anti-immigrant crusade fails to disturb growing Latino community

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, next to a sign he placed in the parking lot of the Sheriff's Department, in Hamilton, Ohio, in 2005.
David Kohl/AP

HAMILTON, Ohio — A block from the sprawling, fortresslike Butler County sheriff’s office in Hamilton is Supermercado Garcia, a Mexican grocery store selling spices and tortillas that provide a taste of home to area residents from south of the border.

The two buildings can be caught in the same line of sight. But they represent very different slices of life in this corner of the state, not far from Cincinnati and Dayton, because the sheriff’s office is where Richard “Rick” Jones runs the county law enforcement apparatus with an almost single-minded zeal to root out undocumented residents — who are often Hispanic — and the employers that hire them.

Jones recently made national headlines by flirting with the possibility of running for the congressional seat that opened when House Speaker John Boehner retired. A special election to replace Boehner is scheduled for June.

“Is he running for the seat?” a Hispanic customer in Supermercado Garcia asked. When told Jones would likely not be launching a campaign, she snapped her fingers disappointedly. “Darn, a lot of us were hoping he would. He would probably cause fewer problems for us if he were in Washington.” Like many other Hispanics in Butler County, she did not want to give her name out of fear of attracting the attention of the authorities.

Many observers consider Jones a Midwestern acolyte of Joe Arpaio, the controversial anti-immigration sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Like Arpaio, Jones has vowed to pursue undocumented immigrants in the county and crack down on anyone giving them a job. He has even hired a detective to conduct investigations and spawned headlines with stunts such as sending the government of Mexico a bill for the cost of jailing them.

Years of Jones’ scrutiny notwithstanding, the Hispanic community in Butler County is growing fast. People have set up organizations in the county to send the opposite message: one of welcoming undocumented immigrants. 

‘A lot of us were hoping he would [run for Congress]. He would probably cause fewer problems for us if he were in Washington.’

Hispanic resident

Butler County

Butler County’s Hispanic population was at 15,904 and climbing in 2013, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency. The U.S. Census Bureau put the county’s Hispanic population at just 4,800 as recently as 2000. 

Despite Jones’ grandstanding, headlines and resources poured into efforts to remove undocumented residents from the county, one Jones critic thinks his crusade has largely fallen flat.

“The number of Hispanics in Butler County has doubled during his time in office. He hasn’t frightened anyone off,” said Shelly Bromberg, the chairwoman of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

She said that, if anything, he has brought the county’s Hispanic population closer together. “It did cause a lot of stress, frustration, especially the first couple of years, in the Hispanic community,” she said. "But then people went on with their lives.”

As menacing as Jones has been to the local Hispanic population, there’s an unusual juxtaposition in the county, evidenced by the open-armed Rev. Michael Pucke, who leads the St. Julie Billiart Catholic congregation in Hamilton.

“This is a safe place,” he said of his church. He doesn’t inquire about his parishioners’ legal status in the U.S. while providing a place of worship, support and like-mindedness. “Why would I ask them?” he said. The church offers four weekend Masses, and the 1 p.m. Sunday service in Spanish, which he leads, is the most crowded, he said, with almost 400 people packing the pews each week. He spent four years as a missionary in Chile before returning to his Ohio roots. 

“Many times people who are that desperate to get into the United States and are willing to spend that much effort are among the best,” he said. He has worked with other agencies in the county to create a safety net for Latinos.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Sheriff Jones. Instead, I prefer to think of all the great organizations and people we have here who are welcoming,” Pucke said.

Jorge Martinez is one of them. An immigration lawyer who set up shop in Hamilton, he acts largely as a resource to counter to Jones.

“Sheriff Jones’ stance on immigration and the fear the community was feeling was one of the factors that brought me to Hamilton. Instead of running away from it, I ran towards it,” Martinez said. 

Martinez is a product of the immigration system, having moved to the U.S. in 2001 on a work visa from Bogotá, Colombia.


Jones has many admirers. He has coasted to election wins easily during his three terms in office. In 2012 he defeated his opponent Dale Richter by garnering just over 80 percent of the vote. 

“I get Republican, Democrat and independent votes,” Jones said. And he is four-square behind Donald Trump. “I like Trump and am doing everything I can to get Trump to come here to campaign … The Republican Party as it currently is is dysfunctional.”

Despite his tough persona, Jones is a master at retail politicking, something even his foes admit, speculating that much of his stance is political posturing.

“A lot of what he does is purely political. I am not sure in reality how he feels personally towards immigrants … In person, he is a nicer guy than you can imagine, supernice, polite, a gentleman,” Martinez said.

Butler County occupies a swath of southwestern Ohio from the GOP stronghold of West Chester, where Boehner built his base, to the more liberal, ivy-covered enclave of Oxford. Jones presses the flesh in all corners of the county. On one recent Wednesday, Mae Velde was wrapping up a 43-year career as a waitress in a local diner. She had been serving vanilla Cokes and grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry customers since Richard Nixon’s presidency. And on her final day, Jones popped in to wish her well and make her an honorary deputy. He didn’t know her but had heard she was an admirer.

“Him stopping by was a total surprise. I am so impressed that he took time out of his very busy day to come celebrate my special day. Sheriff Jones is a very fair man and does his job well. I think that his views on immigration and the law are bar none to anyone else. He is a down-to-earth man who will listen to the little guys like me,” she said. 

‘Sheriff Jones is a very fair man and does his job well. I think that his views on immigration and the law are bar none to anyone else. He is a down-to-earth man who will listen to the little guys like me.’

Mae Velde

resident, Butler County

It’s that everyman touch that has him winning elections, and he thinks he could, if he chose, run for Boehner’s seat and win. “Oh, hell yes, I’d win,” Jones said.

Although he issued a press release that he would not be running, when pressed on the issue, he would not rule it out. “I’m saying, at this time I am focused on running for re-election as sheriff,” he said.

The reaction to his possible congressional candidacy seems to be a collective shrug in the local Hispanic community, especially among those at St. Julie Billiart. Norma Quinteros arrived in Ohio from Argentina in 1979 and has seen St. Julie’s congregation grow into a beacon for a new generation of immigrant arrivals.

“We went from being basically nonexistent to forming a very thriving community. I think St. Julie’s impact on the community is outstanding. What Father Mike is aiming at is the integration of the Latino community, respecting their traditions,” she said. “The difference between 10 years ago and today is unbelievable … The community is taking root. We are trying to make a multicultural community. We have accepted each other’s traditions.” 

But even so, many in the community find themselves wary when they see a police car. “The sheriff is not going to pull over a white Scottish woman who is driving or walking down the street,” Bromberg said. 

St. Julie parishioner Maria Rodriguez, 50, of Middletown told of driving on a rural route last year and being pulled over by one of Jones’ deputies. She is from El Salvador and has been in the country over 30 years, working in housekeeping.

“They see you are Hispanic and stop you, find something to put you in jail, to make you guilty for something. If you are driving, the police will stop you and ask you for your documentation,” she said.

Rodriguez said she still isn’t clear on why she was stopped. The deputy eventually let her and her passengers go on their way without a ticket; two people in the backseat were undocumented.

“They said something about a light on the back of my car, but I did check it when I got home and didn’t see anything wrong,” she said.

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