Detention Hits Home: A Seizure in Sleepy Hollow and a Community Responds

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by Charlene Weigel – 

Update: On July 26, the Hudson Valley Community Coalition put out a plea for phone calls to Senator Gillibrand’s office, saying that Cristobal was being transferred and in danger of immediate deportation. The ICE Locator System displayed a blank field for his detention location. On July 27, his family said that they had “come to the end of the road” and that Cristobal had been deported to Ecuador.

 Six days a week, the lights come on early in the Sleepy Hollow home of the Paute family. February 23 was no different. At 6 a.m., Cristobal, 35, was about to leave for his job as a house painter when there was a hard knock on the door. “We were afraid,” said his wife (name withheld). “They said to open the door because they were going to knock it down and come inside anyway. We waited inside for an hour.” It was school break. Cristobal and his wife’s two young sons were away at a sleepover, but their seven-year-old daughter was home.

“I was in a panic and at one point left the room,” she continued. “Somebody opened the door, and ICE erupted violently inside and started arresting my husband.”

In 2009, Cristobal pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, a serious charge. He paid fines and completed a court-mandated course. Since then, he has lived quietly in Sleepy Hollow, supporting his family, teaching his children to play soccer, and occasionally performing traditional Ecuadorian dances at church festivals. Although the family was aware of the deepening immigration crisis, Cristobal’s sister said there was no new trigger event; it is unclear if or why a nine-year-old DWI would prompt ICE to seize him in 2018.

“This has come so close to us,” she said. “To my family, my community, my friends, my neighbors.”

Sleepy Hollow is unique in the rivertowns with 52% of residents identified as “Latino or Hispanic.” Only Ossining comes close at 48%, while Irvington and Hastings-on-Hudson are at 7%. Sleepy Hollow’s Latino population is a dynamic mix of residents born in the United States and those who have immigrated from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and many other countries. A diverse, but close-knit community where news of Cristobal’s detention traveled rapidly through family, friend, religious and other networks.

St. Teresa of Avila Church in Sleepy Hollow is a hub on many of those networks. Arianna (not her real name), a parishioner, said, “Our priest is always opening the doors of his office to keep the community involved and help us learn about our rights.” The Church held a vigil of support for Cristobal and his family, and hosted a bingo game to raise money to help his wife support their three children on her own. Parishioners collected cell phones so that Cristobal and his family could communicate while he is in detention.

These phones are now the only means of connection. Cristobal was detained initially in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Orange County Correctional Facility where his wife and children were able to visit. He was then moved to a facility in New Jersey, to one in Alabama, and finally to the Jenna/LaSalle Detention Facility in Louisiana. His wife and children have been unable to see him since he was moved from Orange County. ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment on why he was moved three times and to a location so far from his family.

Cristobal described what it is like to be in a detention facility. “ICE never tells you when, where or what time you will be moved, neither gives you an explanation,” he said. “The only way we know we are going to be moved is when you try to purchase food or personal items from our inmate account, [and] the money is not available.” His days are regimented. “When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my inmate account to see if it is still available.” He continued, “Time passes so slowly. I pray. Talk to other inmates. Share our fears. Comfort one another. I pray that one morning they will call my name and I’m free to go back home with my family.”

Cristobal’s children are struggling. “They ask me when I’m going to be back home,” he said. “Why is it taking so long? We are going to the beach next weekend. Can you be back by then?” Cristobal’s sister described the children’s reaction to the separation. “One of them is very shy and doesn’t talk about it.” Another child has some health issues and is displaying anger. “He cries for no reason,” she said. “He believes his father has done something terribly wrong and that is why he is in jail. We explain to him that it is not like that, but he doesn’t want to listen.”

Some support is available for the children, all of whom are American citizens. A social worker from Open Door Sleepy Hollow meets with the family. The Hudson Valley Community Coalition (HVCC) brings Cristobal’s and other affected families together and connects them with legal and advocacy advice. The Sleepy Hollow school system is a key resource as well. “At school, they know he has problems,” said Cristobal’s sister of her nephew with health issues, adding that the school has been very supportive.

Other members of the community voiced the same sentiment. “The education here in Sleepy Hollow is very good,” said Arianna’s husband Carlos (not his real name). “But everything also depends on us as parents to teach our kids.” Arianna added, “It’s fine to have your own cultural traditions, but we have to be integrated into this big country, learning American history, English, everything.” Cristobal’s sister agreed, “We have to be better. Bring our good thinking to this country. Recycle. Pick up garbage. Bring kids to the library.”

Cristobal has lived here for 17 years. Ken Wray, mayor of Sleepy Hollow, believes that Cristobal was bringing his best to the community. “You have a ‘productive member of society’ to use a cliché,” said Wray. “He was working, paying rent, buying food in the community. Now that is taken away. Not to mention the total disaster for his family.”

What about the argument that Cristobal was taking a job away from a citizen, Mayor Wray was asked. “My family came 400 years ago and didn’t have papers,” said Wray. “Show me that other person who doesn’t have a job because he got it? I don’t buy it. This hard-working young man was building a family in Sleepy Hollow and is exactly the kind of person we want to welcome.”

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand met with Cristobal’s family and those of other detained men on June 20 in Washington, D.C. Her office continues to work on Cristobal’s case. Her spokesperson, Rocio Cruz, agreed with Wray, “The current system is treating all undocumented immigrants like criminals, and it’s hurting New York communities and families.” Cruz relayed Gillibrand’s belief that resources should focus on “true criminals who are a danger to the community.”

Carlos and Arianna fled Ecuador because criminals were not held in check by the government. Arianna described a culture of pervasive corruption. She explained that Ecuador has two main political parties that, rather than serving as a check and balance, are in direct collusion. When she completed her teacher training with high scores, she had to borrow $500 to pay off the politician in charge of hiring teachers. “I gave him the money and he turned to the guy from the other party and said, ‘OK half the money is for you and half for me.’” Police corruption was of even more concern. She feared for the safety of her children, saying that criminals and gang members buy off the police and immediately cycle back to the streets.

Arianna and Carlos tried to apply for asylum. “We spent a lot of money. We spent a lot of time trying to be legal,” said Arianna. “We don’t want to go against the government, against the law. One lawyer gives us hope —after 10 years you are going to be legal. Another says after you have a child here you are going to be legal. Another says after the law changes you are going to be legal. I feel no hope now.”

New York State Senator Shelley Mayer commented on cases such as Arianna’s, “U.S. immigration law provides opportunities for people to enter this country legally, and one should not presume that simply seeking to enter is an unlawful act. For example, many people have sought to enter seeking asylum, which is authorized under U.S. law.” Arianna and Carlos fell into that category, but also into another group: immigrants who were taken advantage of while trying to exercise their rights within the U.S. legal system.

In Latin America, the term “notario” indicates a respected public official with legal training. In English, the Spanish translation of “notary public” is “notario público” or just “notario.” Many immigrants spend money they have saved for their asylum application on at best untrained, and at worst fraudulent “notarios.” Cultural and language barriers make them vulnerable to other scam artists as well, such as Marko Nikac who was arrested on July 5 by the Westchester County Police General Investigations Unit for selling fake green cards. When Nikac’s customers discovered the fraud and asked for their money back, he threatened to turn them in to ICE.

There are two lessons from these stories. One is the need for foreign-born residents to access licensed and legitimate legal services. The other is the value of a trusting relationship between immigrant communities and the police. The Westchester County Police, the Town of Greenburgh Police and many others are adopting best practices encouraging immigrants to report crimes without fear of being asked about their legal status.

“Our police will not ask about someone’s status. That is irrelevant to their work,” Wray said. “We want to make sure that everyone who sees a crime happening feels comfortable to report it, including family issues and domestic violence. This makes a safer community for all.”

Still, immigrants feel they need to be model citizens. Cristobal’s sister said, “There is a lot of pressure to be perfect. We tell them if you are going to drive, make sure your car is in perfect condition. Do your stop signs the way you should. Inform yourself.”

Cristobal’s sister went through a local school system feeling that pressure even as a child. “I remember when I graduated from high school. When you’re young, you feel like you can fly,” she said. “I went to a job interview where they said, ‘You’re perfect. Now we just need your Social Security card and your driver’s license.’” Tears formed in her eyes. “So, I wondered what am I going to do from here? I ended up working as a bus girl in a restaurant. But my mom said in this country when one door closes, two more open. I kept studying and, thank you President Barack Obama, he created DACA. That was a big, big change in my life. OK, I cannot do whatever I want, but I can at least fight for what I want.” She became a certified nurse assistant.

Given the cloud over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Cristobal’s sister faces uncertainty. “My son said, ‘Mommy, if you go back, would I have to go with you? I was born here. This is my country.’” Again, the tears filled her eyes. “I told him, ‘Baby, you do what you have to do. As a family, we have to be together.’”

New York State Senator Terrence Murphy (R/Yorktown) hopes for an end “to this bad chapter in our nation’s history.” Rocio Cruz, Senator Gillibrand’s spokesperson, relayed her commitment to finding “a way to allow law-abiding families to come out of the shadows and continue being productive members of their communities.”

Cristobal’s sister, who was brought to this country when she was 13, agreed, “I want to tell people that I am real. We’re present. I love this country and I want to support any good thing to make it better. ‘Make America Great Again.’ In a good way.”

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