Joel Guerrero Freed; What Comes Next?

Numbers only provide a snapshot, a sense of the size of the story. In February, soon after the new U.S. President announced a desire to deport three million illegal immigrants in his first year in office, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) started to conduct what it called “targeted enforcement operations” across the nation.

Sources report that in a five-day operation in February, some 680 individuals were detained under ICE’s new mandate. In March, another 729 were arrested in actions across the country. The total numbers are not yet known. The number deported has not been publicized.

On February 28, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, the president declared: “As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak, and as I promised throughout the campaign.” During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump pledged to deport people whom he referred to as “bad hombres.”

Many of those arrested in February and March were not detained in the action-movie showdown that the president wants citizens to imagine. Instead, many were arrested in ICE’s offices as they made their regularly scheduled check-in appearance with their case officers.

Meet Joel Guerrero of New Paltz, New York. On the day that the president addressed Congress, Mr. Guerrero traveled to New York City with his pregnant wife, Jessica, to meet with his ICE case officer. He was arrested at his appointment.

Mr. Guerrero was released from detention on Wednesday, May 10, more than two months later. Although his deportation case is still open and no decision has been made, he will be home with his wife, Jessica, who is due to give birth to their first child later in May. The couple is seen at the top of this article, in a photo from yesterday.

Guerrero was arrested at his appointment on the grounds that Joel had once missed a court date—in 2011. He had been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana in 2009, and because of that conviction, under the rules for immigrants, Guerrero was mandated to check in with ICE two times a year, which is a rule he complied with. Guerrero legally immigrated from the Dominican Republic two decades ago and has his green card. He has kept his papers up-to-date.

Guerrero has attended every court date since that missed one, but ICE in February put a deportation order in effect for the single court appearance that he missed several years ago, nonetheless.

Thus, Joel Guerrero is not exactly undocumented. Perhaps the term for him and those in similar bureaucratic situations ought to be “partially documented.” He is certainly not a “bad hombre.” Joel Guerrero is a carpenter, newly married with a pregnant wife, and is primary caregiver for his fifteen-year-old nephew, whose mother is too ill to take care of him. Over the last five years, his life has been opening up.

His community knows him and respects him. Within hours of his arrest, people were reaching out to Jessica on social media. An online fundraiser was launched to help Jessica, and it raised $18,000 in a week to help pay legal bills and other expenses. The community grew from immediate neighbors and family to the rest of the nation and beyond borders. When we remember that we are all cousins, the world shrinks in happy ways.

Within days, the family’s story was featured on network news out of New York City and websites such as ThinkProgress.

The Town of New Paltz considered and passed a law that declared New Paltz a “sanctuary city,” which would not have aided Joel Guerrero because of specific circumstances around his arrest, but it may not have been proposed, considered, or passed without his story bringing the matter of the detention of good, partially documented, people to vivid life in New Paltz.

The Austin American-Statesman in March set out to learn the identities of those detained by ICE in Austin, Texas, and to confirm how many had criminal records. Of the fifty-one arrested in Austin in February, twenty-three had criminal records (one had been convicted of homicide) but the other twenty-eight had no records of criminal history of any kind. They “had built quiet lives and stayed out of trouble,” and “they worked in construction. They cleaned houses. They did odd jobs. They had families and children.”

It is a small sample, fifty-one, but each of those twenty-eight individuals in Austin had a life disrupted in a profound and unhappy way for no reason other than a president’s exaggerated belief about the dangers of life in our modern world and that belief being given the weight of law. Most of the twenty-eight remain in detention.

Joel and Jessica Guerrero’s lives have been affected in a profoundly unhappy way. Theirs may be a small example of a larger story, but it is their life, and they need no larger examples.

Because Joel’s case is still pending, the couple will not speak about the legal aspects. I asked several specific questions and all were answered with that reply. Jessica wrote this for print, however:

We really want to thank New Paltz and all of those who supported us during this ordeal. The support and love shown to us by our town during our darkest moment is really what it means to be a community. The fact that Joel is home in time for the birth of our son means the world to us, and we are very grateful that the decision was made to release him.

* * * *
For years, a felony conviction was deemed sufficient cause for ICE to order a deportation of an immigrant. A criminal defense attorney told me that ICE officers regularly (long before the new presidential administration took office) visited the local courts to review the names of those newly convicted: those with surnames that appeared foreign were certain to receive visits from ICE officers.

The Obama Administration pursued two disparate courses of action regarding illegal immigration in his eight years in office: in his first term, a national fingerprint system was established to check the immigration status of anyone booked by police. The system worked, and hundreds of thousands were deported as a result. In his second term, ICE saw the scope of its mandate limited to deporting convicted criminals. Enforcement was concentrated nearer the borders. Deportations declined.

On January 25, the new U.S. President signed an executive order titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which expanded ICE’s definition of reasons for deportation: under previous administrations, ICE “prioritized those who had been convicted of serious crimes, were considered national security threats or were recent arrivals,” but the new executive order targets not only criminals “but also—among others—those who’ve been accused of crimes but not convicted, those who have engaged in document fraud, and those who ‘in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.'”

Accused, not convicted. Thus, a misdemeanor conviction such as Joel Guerrero’s could be deemed sufficient cause for deportation of a man with a new family who has kept in active communication with ICE even with his troubles with the law in his past. The possession conviction did not merit a jail sentence, but it may result in Guerrero’s deportation several years later.

As with the new president’s directionless directive that blocked travel from seven specific countries, this directive describes a vaporously vague ideal but gives little in the way of directions to those bureaucrats who are now tasked with implementing it.

ICE’s bureaucrats (just as Homeland Security’s bureaucrats in airports across the nation after the travel ban was announced) have been handed a task that vastly expands their job description and the number of people to be processed and the amount of paperwork, with no increase in agents hired. ICE has no interest in outsiders watching as it figures out how to implement a massive re-expansion of the organization’s mandate.

The current administration asked ICE to throw bureaucratic caution to the wind and arrest as many people as its agents could, with details like whether or not this or that individual ought to be arrested to be worked out later. And no matter how many were arrested nationally in recent weeks—hundreds so far—ICE and the new president have informed the public of the one or two who perhaps qualified under the old rules and definitions as arrest-worthy, such as an arrest featured in this article from Breitbart last week.

Joel Guerrero has complied with all that has been requested of him on his route to full citizenship. He had not evaded bureaucratic entanglements, and he felt secure enough in his status and in his life to marry.

What lesson ought any immigrant who is not as secure in his or her citizenship status or paperwork as Joel Guerrero take from his arrest, detention, and ongoing legal battle?

* * * *
As with the other ICE detention stories that I have been covering here and elsewhere, I will update this when more information becomes available.

(Full disclosure: New Paltz is my former hometown, and it is a small community. I personally have been acquainted with Jessica Guerrero and until today I last spoke with her about four years ago. I have not yet met Joel but I hope to someday. I donated to the GoFundMe fundraiser.)

* * * *
The Immigrant Defense Project, a group that has many resources for families affected by the current situation across the nation and for communities (like New Paltz) who want to help members who have been unfairly detained. The Immigrant Defense Project’s phone number is (212) 725-6422.

In online conversations, one individual also suggested the Legal Aid Society of New York’s Immigration Law Unit. That organization’s help line is (844) 955-3425.

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