TACOMA — The Pacific County immigrant who was locked up after sharing his family’s story with journalists was set free on Friday from the dingy, concrete-walled Northwest Detention Center near the billowing smokestacks and busy shipping yards at the industrial Port of Tacoma.
Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez had been stuck behind the looming razor-wire fences that surround the grim immigration prison for 39 days.
The 35-year-old couldn’t wait to get out, have a good meal and go home to Pacific County, his attorney Stephen Robbins said, after a judge reduced his bond on Thursday morning.
Aburto Gutierrez had been in the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement lockup since his Nov. 27 arrest. Federal agents picked the Mexico native up outside of Okie’s Thriftway Market in Ocean Park, where he made an early-morning stop for coffee and eggs after getting off work.
Since he came to the country 16 years ago, he’s spent much of his time digging oysters and clams along Willapa Bay.
He and his girlfriend of more than 11 years, Gladys Diaz, were raising three girls together in Ocean Park. The family was separated in June, when Diaz was detained and later deported to Mexico.
A long wait for freedom
Almost six weeks after Aburto Gutierrez’s arrest, he appeared before Judge Charles McCullough, who was appointed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August. A thinner Aburto Gutierrez, wearing a baggy navy-blue prison uniform, filed into the small courtroom with several other inmates who were dressed in various colors. Detainees with lower security risks wore blue and green, while higher-risk prisoners had red or orange uniforms.
Guards escorted them to wooden benches, where they waited their turn to see the judge. Half a dozen immigration activists and journalists who’d come for Aurto Gutierrez’s hearing sat across the aisle from the detainees.
The judge called his case first. ICE attorney Neil Floyd asked McCullough to set no bond, which would have extended Aburto Gutierrez’s stay at the detention center. Floyd said the immigrant has no legal way of dodging deportation because his two daughters are currently with their mother in Mexico.
Robbins argued Aburto Gutierrez has a strong case for an exception. The Yakima attorney told the judge his client’s detention is causing difficulty for his 9-year-old daughter because she needs medical care for stomach pain that sometimes keeps her out of school.
Before Aburto Gutierrez was jailed, the shellfish industry worker had been sending money to Mexico to pay for her healthcare and other needs.
Robbins said his client planned to bring the girls, who are U.S. citizens, back to Ocean Park after they visited their mother. But after their father was locked up, they couldn’t come home.
McCullough said Aburto Gutierrez was not a threat to the public and lowered his bond from $25,000 to $5,000. By Friday afternoon, he’d paid the money and was being processed for release. Aburto Gutierrez will now be allowed to apply for legal status, McCullough said.
After the judge’s ruling, Aburto Gutierrez had a decision to make. If he chose to stay in detention, his case would be heard in Tacoma, likely within weeks or months, and he’d could possibly get a green card. His other option was to pay the bond and wait up to six years for a court date in Seattle.
“He just wants out,” Robbins said. His client didn’t want to endure another meal at the detention center where he estimates 80 percent of the food is thrown out.
Hot off the press, hot on his trail
Robbins volunteered to represent Aburto Gutierrez pro bono after learning about his arrest. The story made international headlines and raised questions about whether ICE was retaliating against him for talking to the press.
Aburto Gutierrez told his attorney and others that an ICE agent who arrested him said, “You are Rosas. You are the one from the newspaper.”
His nickname appeared in an interview that ran in the Observer on Aug. 9 about Diaz’s arrest. Aburto Gutierrez also anonymously recounted the experience in a Nov. 9 Seattle Times article.
ICE Director Thomas Homan insisted Aburto Gutierrez was not the target of retaliation during a late-December phone conversations with Gov. Jay Inslee, who pressed the federal agency for an explanation, the Times reported.
ICE officials say the agency is focused on getting rid of criminals but no one who’s in the country illegally is exempt from the federal crackdown.
Robbins confirmed Aburto Gutierrez has no criminal history, other than entering the U.S. from Mexico in 2001.
During his bond hearing, Robbins objected to an accusation in ICE’s arrest report that his client was a regular methamphetamine user. Aburto Gutierrez “vehemently denies” the allegation that apparently came from a July tip from the public, his lawyer said. ICE agents did not provide evidence or turn the matter over to local law enforcement.
Floyd argued the accusation is important in explaining why ICE took action.
His arrest came six months after Diaz was picked up. An ICE agent posing as a buyer answered an online ad she posted to sell her homemade piñatas. When Diaz went to deliver her candy-filled handiwork, she was arrested in front of her daughters.
Before the agents took her away, Aburto Guttierez said, they walked her home so she could drop the girls off with him. Since he was also in the country illegally, he asked: “Why you don’t take us all?”
The acting ICE director told the governor that’s when the agency learned of Aburto Gutierrez’s status, the Times reported. Agents didn’t arrest him then so he could stay behind to care for the children.
When ICE later learned the girls had joined their mother near Puerto Vallarta, agents returned for Aburto Gutierrez, Inslee said. Since his arrest, Diaz has been left to try to make ends meet for the family with little to no income.
Immigration activists are raising money to help him and his family at gofundme.com/sw4ua-help-the-gutierrez-family. So far, supporters have donated more than $3,500.
Supporting a split family
Robbins told the judge Aburto Gutierrez’s employer is “ready and willing” to hire him back.
Pacific County’s shellfish industry has taken a hit from President Donald Trump’s immigrant roundups. Business owners say they’re having trouble replacing workers taken by ICE.
A carload of Aburto Gutierrez’s supporters from South Bend and Raymond left before dawn Thursday morning to make it to Tacoma for his hearing. South Bend City Councilwoman Janice Hall Davis, along with fellow immigration activists Stephanie Serrano, Diantha Weilepp and Marilyn Wilson had come prepared to protest if they didn’t agree with the judge’s ruling. The unexpected good news brought tears to Serrano’s eyes.
“Mucho bueno, mucho bueno,” she said, reaching out to squeeze Aburto Gutierrez’s hand as he passed her on his way out of the small courtroom.
“No touching,” the guard who was escorting him ordered.
Serrano and the others didn’t have to hold up their handmade protest signs on Thursday, but their work isn’t over. After the hearing, they left money for others who were taken from Pacific County and are still locked up, waiting to find out if they’ll be deported.
“This whole immigration thing is not only inhumane, but it’s also profitable,” Serrano said. “This is a sad place.”