Watching people released from the Northwest detention center in Tacoma over the last month, Jose Robles said he waited for his turn. On Wednesday, it came.
The Mexican immigrant who spent a year in sanctuary at a downtown Seattle church, then turned himself in and spent almost two years at the detention center, walked out of the facility. His hair grown long (but soon to be cut), he was greeted by his wife, two of his three daughters, a granddaughter and pastors of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, which sheltered him for a year.
“I’m good!” Robles, 47, said by telephone from his Lakewood home Friday. “I’m with my family.”
With no legal status in the U.S., he still faces deportation proceedings and is wearing an ankle monitor. But his release, his attorney Sandy Restrepo said, is almost certainly a result of the federal government’s marked shift in immigration priorities under President Joe Biden.
An immigration judge turned down Robles’ request to be released on bond last year. Because of his decision to ensconce himself in a church after being ordered to return to Mexico, “ICE was telling us he was a flight risk,” said Restrepo, co-founder of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo.
Immediately after Biden took office, his administration announced it was scaling back immigration enforcement by focusing on public safety threats and those who entered the U.S. unlawfully after Nov. 1, 2020. President Donald Trump had declared all immigrants living unlawfully in the U.S. subject to enforcement, and made cracking down on such immigrants a central part of his agenda.
Robles, Restrepo said, doesn’t fit the priorities. Owner of a painting business, he has lived in the U.S. for roughly 20 years. He and his wife have an 11-year-old daughter who is a U.S. citizen. Two others are in their 20s and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives work permits and quasi-legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Court and police records show Robles has in the past pleaded guilty to negligent and reckless driving charges and was arrested twice on misdemeanor domestic-violence assault charges that were later dismissed. Following a jail booking on one of the assault charges, in 2010, ICE put him in deportation proceedings, according to court records.
None of the driving and assault charges amount to “aggravated felonies” in immigration law, according to Restrepo, referring to a critical criterion for being deemed a public safety threat under the Biden administration guidelines.
“Let’s give it a shot,” Restrepo said of asking again for Robles’ release. She submitted a request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last month citing the new priorities, which it granted.
On March 4, ICE announced a formal process for reviewing cases of people who believe they do not fall under the new enforcement priorities.
The population of the nearly 1,600-bed detention center in Tacoma, already down dramatically because of releases and sluggish enforcement due to COVID-19, dropped even further. A few weeks ago, it held around 250 detainees, according to Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).
On Friday, ICE spokeswoman Tanya Román said approximately 205 detainees were there. She nonetheless said the facility had not accelerated the pace of releases. “Custody determinations have always been made on a case by case basis.”
But like Restrepo, Adams said it seems Biden’s policies are having an effect. Adams heard Thursday one of NWIRP’s clients, in detention for one and a half years, would be released.
Yet to be seen, he said, is whether ICE will grant requests not only to release detainees, but to stop pursuing deportation cases.
As of now, Robles’ chances of staying here rest in part with an application he has submitted for a U visa, granted to some crime victims. Robles was struck with a pistol during a 2018 robbery of a hair salon. He is also fighting his deportation order in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
If neither of those comes through, Robles could ask ICE not to deport him, given the new enforcement policy. It has that discretion.
Others are similarly in limbo, including another Mexican immigrant who has taken sanctuary at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral for the last two years.
Despite living in confined quarters over a prolonged period, Jaime Rubio Sulficio is doing well, said his wife Keiko Maruyama in an email. “We are hopeful that someday, we will have good news to share,” she continued.
As Robles waits for a resolution to his case, his joy at being home is tempered by the effects of the years-long restrictions on his life. “I don’t want to go outside,” he said. “I’m scared.”