Community members are celebrating the release today of Israel Lopez Bautista, 43, a day laborer who was taken into custody Wednesday morning by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents while waiting for construction work in the Chicago neighborhood of Albany Park.
Advocates attribute the victory to community pressure applied by Bautista’s family, friends, and members of the Latino Union of Chicago, who rallied yesterday to demand his release. Now back with his family, Bautista is “interested in continuing to struggle and to organize for the rights of his community,” says Elisa Ringholm of the Latino Union.
The Wednesday morning raid occurred at an Albany Park street corner where day laborers regularly gather to search for work. Bautista has been coming to the Albany Park corner since he emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala five years ago. According to his brother Enrique, 45, who was with him at the time, they were standing at the corner with three other men when two ICE agents showed up and demanded to see IDs. Bautista, who is undocumented, showed an agent his ID from the Guatemalan consulate. The agents apprehended Bautista and told the rest of the men to get out.
“It was really a nightmare for me, I never thought my brother would be separated from me and his sons,” Enrique said through a translator.
According to Ringholm, ICE agents next took Bautista to a detention facility outside of Chicago, where he was pressured to sign a “voluntary deportation agreement.” After Bautista refused to sign, ICE agents transported him to a holding center in Dodge County, Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of the day. But on Thursday afternoon, he was driven back down to Illinois and deposited at a street corner in Cicero, a west Chicago suburb. Bautista did not know where he was, but eventually he found someone on the street who spoke Spanish and waited with him until his brother Enrique could come to pick him up. Before he was released, Bautista was made to sign an “order of suspension,” a document in English whose contents are currently unclear, but that Ringholm speculated was similar to a parole agreement. Bautista now has a court date for July
Ringholm says that ICE’s motives for returning Bautista are not clear, but she speculates they exercised the policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” whereby ICE can decline to remove individuals who can be shown to have “longstanding ties to the community” or other favorable characteristics. Requesting prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis is usually the only recourse for communities seeking the release of undocumented workers, she asserts.
Immigrations rights advocates hoped to see a significant decrease in deportations after ICE director John Morton issued a memo to staff in June 2011 instructing them to exercise prosecutorial discretion and avoid using the agency’s resources for “low priority” cases. In theory, undocumented workers like Bautista with no criminal record should benefit from the policy shift. However, a recent study found that only about two percent of cases reviewed for prosecutorial discretion last year were closed. The reality, advocates say, is that releases often occur only after community campaigns like the one for Bautista. “We want to show that day laborers are not disposable,” says Ringholm.
This was not the first time that day laborers have been detained in Chicago since the policy change ostensibly took effect. Late last November, ICE agents detained seven men from the same Albany Park corner. All of them signed “voluntary deportation agreements” with the exception of Jose Adolfo, 30, who refused to sign and was eventually released following community protests. Around the same time, ICE raided the Chicago Pallet Services building in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and picked up 34 men. With the help of advocacy from organizations such as the Latino Union, 31 of the men eventually returned home, but the other three have been deported. In response to these operations, over three hundred activists gathered at Daley Plaza on Inauguration Day this year to called on President Obama for an immediate moratorium on deportations. According to ICE figures, the bureau deported over 400,000 individuals last year.
Ringholm says that it makes “no sense” to continue deporting undocumented workers when immigration reform, which could include a pathway to citizenship for workers like Bautista, is on the table. On Tuesday, the Senate commenced debate over the “Gang of Eight”-penned comprehensive immigration reform bill. On the same morning ICE picked up Bautista, eight House democrats called on President Obama to stop all deportations until Congress comes to a resolution on the pending legislation.