Taxi Driver Avoids Deportation
By Juliana Schatz
A Northern Manhattan cab driver narrowly avoided deportation following his arrest last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, based on a 28-year-old gun possession conviction. The cabby, Eligio Valerio, stood closely by his daughter, Elibany, as Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and the former Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, Guillermo Linares, addressed a small crowd gathered outside of 26 Federal Plaza immediately following his release. Rodriguez gave a clear and ardent plea. “ICE is out of control,” said Rodriguez, “that’s the bottom line.” Early last Wednesday, as Valerio picked up his first two passengers, he received a call from his wife that ICE agents at their home asked to meet him in front of the 33rd Precinct
in Washington Heights. When Valerio met them there, they told him that he was being arrested for something in his past. In 1982, when Valerio owned a bodega in Washington Heights, he was arrested for possession of an unregistered gun that he says used for protection while he ran his store. But Valerio, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1979 and has a green card, completed three years of probation and has maintained a clean record since then. So the ICE arrest was a complete surprise. The ICE officials told Valerio he was not eligible for bail or a hearing at the time of his arrest. Valerio’s daughter, Elibany Valerio, a paralegal, told the lawyers at the firm where she worked, who then were in touch with local officials. Together the law firm and local officials put pressure on ICE for a prompt hearing on Wednesday. Valerio was then released on $2,500 bond. At the press conference Wednesday, Valerio was solemn but subtly demonstrated gestures of affection toward his daughter, after what was a traumatic week for the family. Valerio, who took the microphone briefly, thanked the local officials in his native Spanish and the community for their support. His daughter stepped in afterward to translate. “My father thanks everybody in the community,” said Elibany Valerio. Just days earlier, she had stood before the press pleading for her father’s release. Tearful and frightened, she told reporters at a press conference along side Councilman Rodriguez how her father had been detained. She was confused and frustrated because he was a legal resident, who for nearly 30 years had paid his taxes. “Even the judge who saw him Wednesday was confused. He asked ‘Why is here here?’” said Rodriguez. Valerio’s lawyer did not permit him to comment further, and Rodriguez said he didn’t know what had prompted ICE to arrest Valerio. ICE has declined to comment on the reason for detaining Valerio. Valerio’s arrest comes on the after of a recent surge by federal government to increase deportations with a program called Secure Communities. The ICE website says that Secure Communities is a “comprehensive strategy to improve and modernize the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States.” They work with local authorities to obtain fingerprints and compare them with their records. ICE emphasizes its intent to deport the worst of the worst, those with crimes like murder or rape on their record. The reality, however, is that people like Valerio, with minor nonviolent offenses, can get caught in the system.
Advocates and local officials like Rodriguez, Espaillat and Linares are calling on Gov. David Patterson to withdraw New York from participation with Secure Communities because of the controversial effects. Some of those biggest issues are the dismal conditions for immigrants in prison awaiting deportation. Valerio describes the location as hell on earth. “To make a phone call to one person in your family was incredibly difficult. They have like 20 there but to make a call is as hard as reaching the sky with your own two hands,” said Valerio, with translation from his daughter. Elibany Valerio recognized immediately that her father’s rights had been violated. But not everyone has such an advocate. “What about the average citizen, what about the young man Mr. Valerio met inside who is a teenager, a Mexican teenager, he knows how to speak both English and Spanish, educated here,” said Rodriguez, “He told Mr. Valerio that all he was doing was graffiti. Because of that, he will be deported next week to Mexico.” Other concerns about Secure Communities are that for fear of being deported, many undocumented residents will forgo reporting serious crimes or accidents in their neighborhoods. Valerio escaped deportation this week, but he is due to return to this detention center for a second court appearance with the judge in January. While that looms ahead, Rodriguez was sanguine. “Yeah, ICE took his green card, but we are confident,” said Rodriguez, “It could be that this is a mistake, but if it’s a mistake they have to fix it.” As the press conference ended, a local advocacy group, Make the Road, chanted “familia, familia unidad jamas sera vencida,” meaning that a family together will never be torn apart. For now, Valerio is happy to be reunited with daughter and family, especially now as his daughter awaits the birth of her child next month.