Story by Pete Shaw
Federal judge Janice Stewart ordered the release of immigrant justice activist Francisco Aguirre on November 7, one day after his arrest. Aguirre, who had been taking sanctuary, in Augustana Lutheran Church since September 19, was arrested by federal agents for alleged “illegal entry” in the US while appearing in Clackamas County on an unrelated charge.
Over 50 of Aguirre’s supporters packed the federal courtroom gallery. When Aguirre entered nearly all of them stood, many of them remaining standing for the next few minutes, awaiting Judge Stewart’s arrival.
Aguirre entered his plea and asked that he be set free pending trial. Assistant US Attorney Greg Nyhus stated he was “troubled by some indications” that Aguirre was a flight risk and a danger to society, and asked that he be jailed prior to a scheduled January 13 trial date. Nyhus cited Aguirre’s deportation in the late 90s because he had “sold drugs to bums” during an undercover narcotics sting. In an effort to refute recent statements by Aguirre that he did not traffic drugs, Nyhus noted that there were 20 charges made against him in that 1999 case. What Nyhus failed to mention was that in the end all but 2 of the charges were dropped, and Aguirre claims he did not know he was pleading guilty to those two.
Nyhus added that after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents confronted Aguirre at his home on September 19 Aguirre “ran to a church” to avoid prosecution. Persecution would have been the more accurate word, as ICE does not prosecute people in a way that attorneys–including Nyhus–understand. ICE was at Aguirre’s house, just as it has been at so many other houses of people without documentation, to arrest, jail, and deport him.
In a jab directed both at Aguirre and his supporters, Nyhus stated that Aguirre was “willing to use others to further his agenda” while he was taking sanctuary. Nyhus also questioned how it was that Aguirre’s family, which includes his wife and three children, was able to stay afloat since Aguirre–the sole breadwinner–had been in sanctuary. The implication that money was rolling in from some illegal source was clear and perfectly in line with ICE’s typical racist depiction of brown-skinned immigrants as either drug dealers, rapists or murderers. That money, as Pitcher would note in her rebuttal, was coming from a supportive community, something that Nyhus easily could have found out in little time with a simple internet search.
In a surprise to just about everyone in the courtroom, Nyhus then stated that the ICE detainer request regarding Aguirre had been lifted, and thus should not enter into any calculation regarding where he should spend the time between arraignment and trial.
Pitcher responded by stating that the only thing Aguirre was avoiding by taking refuge at Augustana Lutheran was his possible deportation to El Salvador, where prior to fleeing to the US, he had been “kidnapped, tortured, and otherwise abused as a child, and his family slaughtered.” Much of the violence that continues in Central America can be traced to US foreign policy both in its support of right-wing governments, militaries, and paramilitaries, as well as so-called free trade agreements that have greatly helped devastating the economies of those countries.
Judge Stewart said she felt Aguirre presented a low flight risk and that his drug arrest “is dated.” Stewart then set conditions upon Aguirre’s release, including requiring him to live in a place where he can access pre-trial services. She suggested that could be at his home, since ICE has lifted its detainer request. Stewart also said that along with obeying these requirements, Aguirre would also have to obey any restrictions imposed upon him by ICE.
The ICE proviso highlights the crux of Aguirre’s, and many other immigrants’, dilemma. Aguirre is applying for a U-Visa–available to immigrants who are victims of serious crimes and who have cooperated with authorities in prosecuting those crimes. But it seems according to Stewart that should ICE seek to subvert Aguirre’s application, he will have no recourse but to accept detention and possible deportation. When Pitcher sought further illumination about the ICE hold and whether ICE could reinstate it any time without notifying Aguirre, Stewart said that she had no control over what ICE did and that “they are independent of the courts,” adding that Aguirre “must comply with their conditions.”
Both Pitcher and some supporters of Aguirre thought ICE would not turn around and reinstate the detainer request now that Aguirre had been released. “I think it would be bad faith,” said Pitcher, “to take it off and put it back on.” It certainly would be a public relations nightmare. An internet search for “Francisco Aguirre” brings up numerous articles from outlets across the US and the rest of the world, and ICE does not like its detentions and deportations that tear apart families to be daylighted.
But ICE’s history points to a reason for Aguirre and his supporters to fear it might change its mind. Destructive Delay–a recently released report from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network–shows that ICE has taken up a policy of aggressively attempting to detain and deport people without documentation with a focus upon immigrant community leaders like Aguirre.
At the end of the day the fact that ICE may or may not honor its word is not the issue. ICE already has created a toxic environment in which people without documentation do not trust it–and by extension–the entire US justice system. In turn, ICE also has helped galvanize a large swathe of people from many walks of life who are willing to stand up to its bullying ways and demand its boss, President Obama, end all deportations.
For Aguirre, however, the events of November 7 were enough reason for celebration. Dora, Aguirre’s wife, stood on the steps of the Federal Building after Stewart’s announcement, unable to hold back her tears. Eight hours later Aguirre was released into her waiting arms, as well as those of his children and supporters.