OCEAN PARK — Passersby honked, waved, snapped photos and rolled down windows to holler insults or hoot for a crowd that showed up along Bay Avenue Friday afternoon. They gathered to protest the immigration arrest of a Willapa Bay shellfish harvester, who says federal authorities targeted him because he talked to the press.
Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez was picked up at an Ocean Park grocery store parking lot on Nov. 27. He’d talked to the Chinook Observer and the Seattle Times about the arrest, and later deportation, of his longtime girlfriend, Gladys Diaz.
The couple lived in Ocean Park, where they were raising three girls before run-ins U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement split the family.
“The message ICE is sending is be afraid and be quiet,” said Stephanie Serrano, a protester from South Bend.
After Aburto Gutierrez, 35, was arrested, diplomats from the Mexican consulate in Seattle stepped in to help him find a lawyer, access assistance and protect his rights, spokesman Luis Mingo said.
Now, Stephen Robbins, an immigration attorney from Yakima, is taking his case for no fee. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is also working on his behalf.
Robbins plans to ask the judge to lower Aburto Gutierrez’s $25,000 bond at his hearing on Jan. 4. Until then, he’s likely stuck in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
The weeks-long wait for a court date, however, isn’t what Robbins finds peculiar about the case. He said Aburto Guitierrez is the first client he seen taken to the federal lockup without having any record of past run-ins with immigration or law enforcement authorities.
“Usually, there’s something,” Robbins said. “In this case, there’s really not. … He says they told him it was because he was in the newspaper.”
ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley told the Times the agency doesn’t retaliate as a rule. When pressed about Aburto Gutierrez’s case, she declined to comment.
Federal officials say ICE is targeting criminals for arrest and deportation. However, the president has directed the agency go after anyone who’s in the country illegally.
“This type of policy doesn’t make sense for anybody, regardless of their politics,” Robbins said. “It doesn’t make us safer.”
No criminal convictions came up for Aburto Gutierrez in a public records check. Observer archives show he was fined $100 for driving without liability insurance in 2006.
Robbins said when ICE goes after working immigrants like Aburto Gutierrez, agents have less time and fewer resources to get rid of criminals who are a threat.
The attorney said his client was doing as well as could be expected when he talked to him on Monday.
“He kept saying, over and over, he was trying to do the right thing, working, paying his taxes, and, still, he ended up locked up,” Robbins said. “He’s really struggling with that.”
Several protesters said they find it troubling too. Aburto Gutierrez is among dozens who’ve been taken away from their homes and livelihoods in Pacific County since the Trump administration ramped-up federal immigration enforcement.
Ann Reeves, of Long Beach, organized the protest. Almost two dozen showed up to support Aburto Gutierrez, whose arrest made national and international headlines.
“It just seems so wrong,” said Sandy Nielson, of Nahcotta.
Several in the crowd said immigration agents should be removing dangerous criminals who are in the country illegally. The president promised to get rid of the “bad guys,” Leah Gonder said. Instead, federal agents are letting them get away while they use “Gestapo tactics” to take her hard-working neighbors away, she said.
“The persecution is worrisome in a land of immigrants,” said Gonder, of Ocean Park. “If we can stand up to injustices, we have to do it.”
As is the case throughout the country, people on the Peninsula are divided when it comes to immigration policy. A counter protester showed up near the end of Friday’s demonstration just before dark. The man waved a large navy-blue flag with the president’s name and “make America great again” slogan across it in white letters.
“I’m just here because they’re here,” he said, pointing at the protesters. He declined to give his name, adding: “I’m a supporter of the law and the United States Constitution.”
On the other side of the street, Karen Engstrom, of Ocean Park, said she suspects Trump’s immigration agents are going after working people across Pacific County because “the bad guys” are harder to find.
Engstrom met Aburto Gutierrez after his girlfriend was arrested in June. Diaz thought she was meeting a someone who wanted to buy a homemade piñatas she’d advertised online. It turned out to be a set-up.
Before immigration officers took her away, they walked her home so she could leave her daughters, 4, 7 and 12, with Aburto Gutierrez.
She and the girls are now living in Mexico near Puerto Vallarta. Aburto Gutierrez stayed behind so he could keep working to support them.
After he was locked up, friends and neighbors set up a webpage to raise money at gofundme.com/sw4ua-help-the-gutierrez-family.
Engstrom said Aburto Gutierrez told her how much he missed Mexico. He had to leave to find a steady work and stay away from gangs, she said. He came to the U.S. as a teenager, almost 20 years ago.
Skyler Walker said she’s frustrated with people who don’t seem to understand how hard it is for immigrants to come into the country legally. She was so fed up on Friday, she left her gardening project and went to the rally.
“I really don’t like conflict but you have to show up,” the Ilwaco resident said. “What would you do to take care of your family?”
As she walked slowly behind the protesters, using a cane for support, a man stopped her, shook her hand and thanked her for speaking out.
“I’d like to join, but I don’t want to be targeted,” he said.