March 22, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Pastor Kaji Dousa bowed her head in the sun behind 26 Federal Plaza and prayed “to help us turn ICE into warmth.” Dousa was delivering the invocation at a March 21 rally urging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to free Juan Vivares, a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant.
Early that morning, Vivares, his wife, and his lawyer had gone to ICE’s Manhattan offices, upstairs in the building, for a check-in, his first since his appeal for political asylum was denied last November. An ICE officer immediately told them he was being taken into custody to await deportation.
The officer “didn’t allow us to explain our case, or that we pay taxes,” Yaharia Burgos, Vivares’s wife, said in Spanish to the crowd of about 75 people. “All she said was, ‘I have a decision, and there is no other decision to make.’” She wondered who would take care of their 14-month-old son while she works the overnight shift as a doorwoman in an Upper East Side building. Vivares, who worked days as an electrician, normally did.
“What is happening to this young couple should not be happening in America today,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, Burgos’s union. Vivares, he added, was one of the “thousands of stories of good people who are being uprooted” by the Trump administration’s “misguided, xenophobic, aggressive” immigration policies, “persecuting people who are no threat.”
“No son criminales,” he said in Spanish. “They are not criminals.”
Vivares, who’d lived in a small town in Colombia’s Antioquia department, fled the country in 2011 after receiving death threats from right-wing paramilitary groups, his lawyer, Rebecca Press of Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, told LaborPress. He’d campaigned for a mayoral candidate they opposed.
Vivares had applied for political asylum, but it was denied because he couldn’t produce enough documentation, such as letters from witnesses, Press said.
After the ICE officer told them that Vivares would be taken into custody, Press tried to argue “positive equity,” including that he worked, paid taxes, and had never been arrested for anything except crossing the border illegally in 2011, and that his wife was a U.S. citizen.
“It was clear that the decision was already made when we walked in,” she says. “They asked me to leave.”
“Juan Vivares-Mazo has exhausted all administrative options and has received a final order of removal from an immigration judge,” ICE spokesperson Rachael Yong Yow told LaborPress by email. “He is currently in ICE custody pending removal from the United States.”
She said she didn’t know how long it would be before Vivares is deported, but “generally speaking, if there is a final order of removal and all travel documents are in place, it shouldn’t be a long process.”
Press said that she and Burgos are discussing what options they have left to try to stop it.
Most of the people at the rally were 32BJ members, but it also drew contingents from Workers United, the community organization Make the Road New York, and several elected officials, including City Councilmembers Margaret Chin, Ben Kallos, Mark Levine, Carlos Menchaca, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Jimmy Van Bramer.
Public Advocate Tish James said it was “really unconscionable” that ICE “would tear a child from its father.”
“If they take Juan, they can take you,” Comptroller Scott Stringer warned. “It might be about your politics.”
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told reporters after the rally that Trump’s immigration policy was “racist,” saying it’s “a lie” that deportations are “only focused on those who are hurting our communities.”
“It’s very clear that with the change of administration, there’s been a change in enforcement priorities,” Press says.
ICE did not respond to a question about whether Vivares fit the category of criminal or terrorist.
Two-thirds of 32BJ’s members are people who “have chosen to make this country their home,” Figueroa noted.
“What is happening to immigrants is a labor issue. All of labor needs to stand with families like Yaharia and Juan’s,” he told LaborPress after the rally. “These are working people. To treat them like this is un-American.”