By Pete Angie
Jose Guzman-Lopez sat before a judge at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center, in Batavia, on Jan. 3, waiting to learn if his incarceration would continue – or if he would be released.
He had been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in downtown Ithaca on May 2, 2017, while walking to work. His arrest shocked many in the city, and hundreds turned out for an impromptu rally to protest his detainment. For those upset about the arrest, it was viewed as a warning from the President Donald Trump-era ICE to a proud sanctuary city.
What matter to Guzman-Lopez on the day of his arrest, however, was not policy or politics – it was notifying his boss that he’d been delayed, and desperately seeking a friend who could rush to the car in which he was being held to grab his keys and take care of his cat. He also worried he’d no longer be able to send money to his parents in Mexico.
Since that moment – and for the past eight months – Guzman-Lopez’s life has been out of his hands and has been on hold behind barbed wire and concrete.
– – –
Angela McEnerney was the friend who took in Jose’s cat that day. She sat in the courtroom on Jan. 3, anxiously listening and watching the proceedings. She’d offered her apartment for Jose to stay at if he were released. Supporters had raised $10,000 to be used to pay a possible immigration bond, but no one knew what amount that would be set at, if it were set at all.
McEnerney was there with four other Ithacans, friends of Jose’s. She has known Guzman-Lopez for three years, and had worked tirelessly to secure an immigration attorney for him, searched through his belongings to find critical documents for his case, helped put his belongings into a storage unit, and visited him in custody.
She was one of many friends who supported Guzman-Lopez with phone calls, visits, writing letters to the court on his behalf, and showing up for the appearances. Dozens of supporters had come to appearances in Syracuse and Binghamton. Collin Lieberman, who has been Guzman- Lopez’s martial arts instructor for five year, was one such friend in Batavia on Jan. 3.
“We formed a bond and a friendship,” Lieberman said. “I want to be there for him as I’d hope someone would be there for me.”
Ali Diemecke, who also attended court, has known Guzman-Lopez for several years through music, playing pool and sharing a local gym.
“There are few people I’ve ever felt safer with than Jose,” said Diemecke, citing his kindness and honesty. “It’s appalling, this idea that he’s an outsider, when he’s a full part of this community.”
The tense anticipation that held sway over the courtroom was lost on a guard, who nodded to sleep in his chair just behind Guzman-Lopez. The proceeding, called a Master Calendar Hearing, was presided over by Judge Steven Connelly, and the room was quiet but for the the succinct words of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney Blanca Owens, and Guzman-Lopez.
He conceded removability and indicated that he intended to apply for asylum, and then the parties moved to the matter of an immigration bond. The prosecutor argued that Guzman-Lopez was a danger to the community and should be denied bond, due to an arrest in 2014 for disorderly conduct that involved an individual being stabbed during a fight.
The arrest had not resulted in a conviction, and the judge noted Guzman-Lopez’s long tenure in this country – more than 10 years – without other criminal justice involvement, besides having a fraudulent green card. Connelly found Guzman-Lopez to not be a danger, and levied a bond requirement of $10,000, paving the way for his release.
Guzman-Lopez looked at his friends behind him with a broad smile. His matter was adjourned and moved to the auspices of the Buffalo Immigration Court, where a new hearing date will be set. After the few hours it took to process his release, Guzman-Lopez walked out of the detention center to the cold air and blue sky, happy and ready to go home.
– – –
This reporter sat down with Guzman-Lopez on Jan. 5, to talk about his experience in federal detention, what brought him to this country, and why Ithaca has been a special place to call home.
He recalled his darkest hour first of all. He had been taken from the facility in Batavia on May 10, 2017, to appear in a federal criminal court in Syracuse on charges of having a fraudulent immigration instrument, or green card. He’d heard misinformation that he could receive five to 10 years in prison, and, because the hearing came as a surprise, Guzman-Lopez was alone in the courtroom.
“Say whatever you want,” he said he told himself that day, “I can take it. Send me wherever you want. I can take it.”
Of that moment, Guzman-Lopez said, “I felt like I was hopeless, but at the same time I felt like – then I thought about it – they couldn’t keep me forever. There will be a day I will be out.”
That positive attitude has been called a defining characteristic by his friends and acquaintances, and it helped him through his ordeal. Support from friends also proved to be a crucial part of making it through in the face of incarceration and an uncertain future. Guzman-Lopez felt angry about everything and sometimes sad.
“Days I felt, like, really sad, I felt depressed because of being in a place I’ve never been in before,” he shared. “I just kept thinking about all my friends out there supporting me, and that makes the day get better and better.”
After the May 10, 2017 hearing in Syracuse, Guzman-Lopez was moved to the Cayuga County Jail, where he spent the majority of his time in custody, and where he faced harassment from one of the guards. The man repeatedly told him to go home, asked him why he didn’t just go back to his country, and castigated him for stealing jobs from American citizens. For four months this occurred every time Guzman-Lopez encountered the man, about once a week.
Something else happened too, though. The other inmates at the jail, who hailed from Auburn, Cortland, Dryden and elsewhere, grew to like him. They shared things with him they purchased through their commissary, such as ramen noodles and cups of coffee, things Guzman-Lopez felt he couldn’t buy. They learned of his Mayan ethnicity, and began to respond to the guard’s taunts by saying, “He’s more American than you.”
“Every time he tried to say something,” Guzman-Lopez recalled, “some people comes in and say something to him…I felt like, really, somebody was really defending me.”
He would force a smile at the man as well, with difficulty. One day, after months of that treatment, the guard asked Guzman-Lopez how he was doing.
“I thought it was a miracle,” he said. “When I left he wished me luck.”
Contemplating what he thought turned the man around, Guzman-Lopez felt it was probably because the guard had never seen him get mad.
“He was trying to get into my nerves, and I would only smile,” he said.
Guzman-Lopez remained in the Cayuga County jail while he attended court appearances in both Syracuse and Binghamton in regard to the forged green card, a charge to which he eventually pleaded guilty. He was sentenced on Oct. 27, 2017 to six months of time-served, and three years of supervised release. Guzman-Lopez remained in jail on the immigration matter, and was shortly moved back to the facility in Batavia, until his release.
He denies feeling any more anger about his detainment.
“I feel like it’s over. It’s in the past,” Guzman-Lopez said. “It’s time to move on.”
Asked if he has always had such a positive attitude, he revealed that he hasn’t: “People taught me how to be this personality.”
– – –
Prior to coming to the U.S., Guzman-Lopez had spent much of his life avoiding violence and discrimination in Mexico, keeping to himself and staying at home. He was born in Chiapas, and is indigenous. He is proudly Mayan, and his first language is a Mayan dialect. The Maya have felt severely neglected by the Mexican government.
“The government doesn’t give us roads, or schools, or water,” said Guzman-Lopez.
On New Year’s Day in 1994, when he was nine years old, the Zapatista Rebellion erupted in Chiapas. Heavy fighting between the armed indigenous movement and the Mexican government lasted only 11 days, but bloodshed and the murders of civilians continued for years. Guzman-Lopez tried to remain at home to be safe, and remembers seeing people killed on the way to the store.
He illuminated living through the conflict with this chilling recollection: “When walking, I’d see blood everywhere. It’s like a nightmare. I remember my mom trying to cover my eyes.”
An uncle, who was later killed, sent Guzman-Lopez to a boarding school six hours away to protect him from the violence. He described the school like a prison, where he lived for six years. He only saw his family a handful of times, at one stretch not for three years, due to the expense of travel and the language barriers his parents faced. When he had a job at the school caring for its animals, he was able to travel home once a year.
Guzman-Lopez had arrived speaking no Spanish, and was treated poorly by his peers.
“Spanish speakers hate indigenous people, and don’t treat us the same,” he said.
There, too, he retreated.
After the boarding school, Guzman-Lopez moved to live with a cousin for the last three years of high school, in Mexico City, where gang violence replicated the violence of war. He said he could not walk on the streets after 6 p.m., and had to be careful on the crowded trains, where just bumping into someone would result in a fight. Guzman-Lopez had a bottle smashed over his head once. While working, he was shot at by one of two strangers who were engaged in a fight that had erupted feet away. Once again, he stayed in his room to stay alive.
Guzman-Lopez finished high school and was walking to the college he attended when one day a stray bullet struck him in the shin.
“That’s when I knew it wasn’t safe to live there,” he said, and that day he made the decision to go to the U.S.
Although it was months before he could walk again, he returned to work and saved money. Within eight months of being shot, he crossed the border to the North.
In Ithaca, Guzman-Lopez found what he was looking for: Safety and people who cared. He felt gratitude for the way people welcomed him, and sought to return that kindness in his daily interactions.
“When I came here I felt more freedom. I felt more free,” Guzman-Lopez recalled.
He found steady employment, joined a gym, studied martial arts, sent money to his parents, explored the country on road trips, made lasting friends, and moved past the violence and isolation that had so colored his youth and early adulthood.
“I had been a prisoner of myself,” Guzman-Lopez said of his life in Mexico, “until I came here and started hanging out with friends. I felt like this is different. This is life.”
His immigration matter will proceed in the Buffalo Immigration Court at a date yet to be scheduled, and will determine if Guzman-Lopez will be deported to Mexico, or if he can continue to be a part of the community that has embraced him, and that he has made his home.