By Pete Angie
Jackie Zhang, a server at Siagon Kitchen, noticed that Jose Guzman had not showen up for work on Tuesday, May 2.
Zhang, who is a close friend of Guzman’s, said he and Guzman normally get to work at 11, but by 11:30 Guzman was not there. Then Zhang got a phone call from Guzman who asked him to tell the kitchen that he would not be in: He’d been arrested.
Zhang thought it was a joke, but Guzman explained that he’d been picked up by immigration police. Guzman sounded rushed and said he had to go.
“I felt useless,” said Zhang, unsure of what to do at that moment.
From the back of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement police car Guzman called Lyssa Buda, another friend. She rushed to meet him in the parking lot at Tops grocery store in Ithaca, where Guzman gave her the keys to his apartment and asked her to take care of his cat, then he was taken away.
Buda and other friends of Guzman have been scrambling to do whatever they can to assist him.
“Right away calls and messages started flowing in,” said Zhang, remarking that his phone hasn’t stopped for days.
Even people who knew him and had moved away were calling. Buda, who is a veterinary tech student, sorted through Guzman’s belongings to find papers that might be important to an immigration case: His social security card, marriage certificate, utility bills that showed a record of consistent payment. In the days that followed she and others moved his furniture into a storage unit.
Initially, it was very hard to make contact with Guzman once he was inside the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia.
“We’ve all been learning this as we go along,” said Melyssa Hall, another friend of Guzman’s.
Hall, who lives in Brooklyn, resided in Ithaca for a year while doing a directing fellowship with the Kitchen Theater Company, and met Guzman during that time. Following his arrest she started a GoFundMe page, and is working to connect Guzman with an attorney.
“To get an attorney you need a lot of info about him,” said Hall. “It’s really difficult to reach him.”
She said calling the facility resulted in being directed from one automated menu to another. Guzman had limited ability to call out, since the only phone numbers he could call to, she explained, were numbers that he knew by heart, without the aid of the contact list in his confiscated cell phone.
During calls that were limited to three minutes, she read him the names and phone numbers of attorneys to memorize, as he was not allowed a pen or paper to write anything down. The GoFundMe effort has raised almost $7,000 for Guzman, which will be used toward an attorney or bail. Bail may be set at an upcoming immigration hearing, the date of which has not been set.
In an interview at the Buffalo facility, Guzman stated that ICE officials told him that his hearing would occur within two to four weeks of his detainment. Other detainees told him that it would be at least a month until the initial hearing. Guzman met with this reporter on Sunday, May 7, and declined to comment on the specifics of his legal case. He spoke freely, however, about detainment and why he came to the U.S.
Wearing an orange jump suit, Guzman sat behind a heavy thick glass window and talked through a phone. He explained the facility is a dorm without privacy, and that he is bored because there is nothing to do there except watch movies and play some games. He said he feels like he is in kindergarten, unable to do anything on his own. Guzman studies martial arts and is an avid soccer player, and misses the feeling of exercise and sweating.
“He’s used to working every day and moving a lot,” said Zhang about the forced inactivity Guzman faces. “He walks everywhere. I can’t imagine him caged up like this.”
To pass the time Guzman has taken to talking to other detainees, who he described as friendly and willing to talk if you looked down. There was one other Mexican there, and most of the other detainees were from Asia, Europe or Africa. He became friends with a Brazilian man who has been there for more than two years. He had been fighting deportation and has been to court six or seven times, but just recently found out that he lost his case, and will be deported.
Guzman came to the U.S. from Mexico 11 years ago, and has lived in Ithaca for 10. Guzman grew up in the small town of Tejapa, in Chiapas, Mexico. He identifies as Mayan, and said Mayan was the first language he learned, followed by Spanish, then English. He is one of 10 children – five brothers and five sisters – who grew up poor.
“We had nothing, not even shoes sometimes,” Guzman said of growing up.
The region was plagued by drug related violence, and Guzman would simply go home after school and stay home to avoid it. He went to college in Mexico City, but ran out of money for tuition before he was able to graduate and felt he had no more options in Mexico.
“I wanted a better life,” Guzman explained, so he came to the U.S.
He is worried about returning Mexico, due to the violence that persists.
“I came here and I found a place I love,” Guzman said of Ithaca. “I feel really safe here.”
Zhang and Guzman used to frequent The Westy and Lot 10 after work to play pool. Zhang recalled being at Lot 10 on Election Night and seeing how upset Guzman was about Trump. For the most part, though, Guzman presents a positive attitude according to Zhang and others.
“He’s always been super witty, super ridiculous,” said Zhang. “He’s a happy guy.”
“He’s somebody who makes everyone he meets feel extremely special,” said Hall, recalling the way he would scream out people’s names when he saw them, and the giant hug he would greet her with.
She commented on his big heartedness extended to his family in Mexico as well. He often sent money to them, including for his mother’s medical bills when she was ill. Buda remarked on how Guzman helped her settle in at work when she was a new cashier at Siagon Kitchen. The job was fast paced and difficult to learn, and she found herself getting yelled at a lot. Guzman started a positivity list with her. Each time she went back into the kitchen where he was cooking he would say something he liked, such as snuggling his cat, and she would do the same for the whole shift.
“It was just this really small thing that he did to make me smile,” Buda said, “and it was super awesome.”
Unexpectedly, on Wednesday, May 10, Guzman appeared in front of a judge in Syracuse without legal representation, according to Boda. He was then transferred to the Cayuga County Jail in Auburn. The following day, a report from The Ithaca Voice – citing a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office – indicated Guzman (identified as Jose Guzman-Lopez in the press release) had been charged with possession of a forged and counterfeit alien registration card, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release.
“The defendant may also face deportation or other immigration law consequences if he is found guilty,” the Voice story quoted from the news release. “A defendant’s sentence is imposed by a judge based on the particular statute the defendant is charged with violating, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other factors.”
Guzman plans to fight to remain in the U.S., so he can continue the life he has here.
“I feel like I’m from here,” he said of Ithaca. “People know me and respect me. I feel like a local person.”