Jose Maria Islas is now safe from deportation and able to return to his family and work, announced La Unidad Latina en Acción at a rally Monday morning.
The announcement came after a long, highly publicized struggle between immigrant advocacy groups in New Haven and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Islas has known since August that he has been granted a “stay of removal” which allows him to reside and work in the U.S. legally for one year, though he only made this information public on Monday. Islas was imprisoned for four months last year for a false accusation of bicycle theft and could not pay bail because of his undocumented status. He was detained at a Mass. jail with an ICE hold request authorized under the federal Secure Communities program. His case spurred a city-wide movement to free Islas and protect him from deportation.
“I am delighted and gratified that the government has taken a step that is long overdue and clearly appropriate,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, who has openly supported Islas since May.
ULA’s announcement came minutes before four activists went to trial at the New Haven courthouse for disorderly conduct, which they had planned in order to bring attention to the injustices immigrants face from the judicial system. On Feb. 21, the day Islas was given his final deportation order, these activists participated in civil disobedience by blocking an entrance to the Hartford federal courthouse.
“It was a crisis,” ULA activist Megan Fountain ’07 said, who was among those charged. “We help those in crises.”
All four defendants represented themselves yesterday and pleaded “not guilty.” The defendants said that their demonstration was peacful, and they used security footage as evidence. The group of activists cross-examined each other and also the federal agents who arrested them to make their case. Fountain said their judge, Joan Margolif, was “unbelievably interested in what we had to say.” The activists are now awaiting their ruling.
They had intended to use this case to demonstrate the right “to be treated with respect, dignity and due process,” according to Mark Colville, a founding member of Amistad Catholic Worker, a local service organization.
“[Islas] didn’t have any of these things when he went to trial,” Colville said.
Once the judge acquitted Islas, he spent the next year in and out of various immigration facilities. While at home, he was monitored by GPS-tracking bracelet and visited weekly by ICE agents, Fountain said. The movement’s profile rose tremendously this summer when U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal wrote open letters to ICE asking for Islas’s release.
Blumenthal said he was inspired to support Islas after seeing “how unwise and unfair the government has been in seeking to deport him without any real factual or legal basis.”
ULA, along with other New Haven advocacy organizations, has demonstrated and petitioned ICE to return Islas to his family since his first incarceration. Jordan Scruggs DIV ’15, who also stood on trial Monday, said that for awhile they had tried writing letters and petitions to politicians, but after seeing Islas and his family face a trying legal process and the possibility of deportation, she felt she had to “disrupt the narrative” of deportation.
Though ULA publicly announced Islas’s safety at the rally Monday morning, he received the letter from ICE informing him of their decision in late August after his attorney, Danielle Briand ’01, called the office. The letter was dated Jul. 19. Briand, who has represented Islas since August, said that Islas is not totally in the clear and will have to reapply for this status annually.
The trial has devastated the Islas family, activists said. He has been unable to work due to his incarceration and lawsuit and has also suffered from trauma from being in jail for so long.
Speaking through a bullhorn, ULA activist John Lugo said that in light of this victory, it is important to keep advocating and fighting for the thousands of individuals like Islas who face unjust deportation.
“Politicians play with the hopes of millions of people by promising immigration reform,” he shouted. “We need to make direct actions to stop deportations.”
But Sen. Blumenthal remains hopeful for immigration reform at the structural level once the government reopens.
“There are many others like [Islas] whom I am seeking to assist through legislative changes, as an advocate for immigration reform in Washington,” he said. “The results in this case show that intervention and advocacy for individuals can make a difference.”
The “stay of removal” condition, similar to “deferred action,” is a result of a federal executive policy called “prosecutorial discretion,” which says that the government can and should drop a case if the person under investigation is not a dangerous criminal or otherwise a priority for removal.