Antonio’s family came to us early last year after he was detained by ICE. In February, while Antonio was on his way to work, he was stopped by local police; his expired driver’s license prompted a call to ICE. When they arrived, and Antonio could not provide documents proving he was in the United States legally, he was immediately detained. In fact, Antonio is an undocumented immigrant and a long term resident of Southwest Detroit.
This all happened just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to take over the headlines and, soon, all our lives. On top of the trauma of this sudden separation and questions about what they would do without their primary provider, the family also worried about Antonio’s health and safety in the close quarters of the ICE detention center. He needed to be released as soon as possible.
Given Antonio’s long-term presence in the community, the lack of any indication of him being a danger to the community, and some pre-existing medical conditions that made him more susceptible to severe COVID-19, we thought it would be easy to secure his release on bond. However, several unpaid traffic tickets in his record were enough for the Immigration Judge to deem him a flight risk and deny his freedom. A setback for sure, but we did not give up.
Our staff accompanied family members to all the places where he had outstanding tickets and paid the fine. We hoped this would clear the way for Antonio’s release. Still, his freedom was denied by the judge. We next sought his release in federal court, arguing that his risk of harm from COVID-19 infection while in jail violated his constitutional rights. Again, we were denied.
Still not willing to give up, we joined the ACLU of Michigan in a class-action lawsuit asking for freedom for immigrants in detention who were especially vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. While this lawsuit won release from jail for immigrant inmates in one Michigan prison, the court did not release immigrant inmates from Antonio’s prison. Finally, ICE recognized the danger the pandemic posed to Antonio and released him from jail, nine months after he was first detained!
Antonio’s family was happy to see him! And so were we. At Thanksgiving, SWIRC staff and several members of New Hope Presbyterian Church visited Antonio and his family. During the nine months while Antonio was gone, the family’s water was shut off, their home foreclosed, and (after water was restored) their boiler needed to be replaced. Throughout this time, members of New Hope had offered support to Antonio’s family, their generosity ensuring that the family would keep their home.
During our visit, Lucia*, Antonio’s wife, related how their teenaged daughter regularly asks to be pinched because having her father back home is like a dream. This holiday season, we rejoice with this family who gets to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. We are thankful for partners like New Hope Church, who are putting the Biblical call to “show welcome to immigrants” into real and concrete action!
The Martinez family are real people, but their story is far from unique. Each week we work with families who have been split by detention and deportation, who are struggling to pay the right bills to keep their home, or who are desperately seeking a safe life through asylum in the United States.
*Clients names have been changed
The Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center provides free and low-cost legal services to those who need them most in the Detroit area, with a focus on recent immigrants and refugees.
We were founded in 2014 by Kevin Piecuch, our Executive Director