As Biden immigration policies kick in, ICE releases Jose Robles after three years in sanctuary in a Seattle church and Tacoma detention center

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Jose Robles leaves the Northwest Tacoma Detention Center on Wednesday as family and friends gather to greet him.  (Courtesy Sandy Restrepo of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo) (Yanira Torres /)

Jose Robles watched as he was released from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma last month and waited for his turn. It came on Wednesday.

The Mexican immigrant, who spent a year in the sanctuary of a church in downtown Seattle, then vomited and spent nearly two years in the detention center, left the facility. His hair became long (but soon cut) and he was greeted by his wife, two of his three daughters, a granddaughter and pastors of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, who sheltered him for a year.

“I’m good!” Robles, 47, said on Friday by phone from his Lakewood home. “I’m with my family.”

Having no legal status in the U.S., he is still facing deportation proceedings and wearing an ankle monitor. But his release, his attorney Sandy Restrepo said, is almost certainly the result of the sharp shift in immigration priorities by the federal government under President Joe Biden.

An immigration judge denied Robles’ request for release last year. Due to his decision to settle in a church after being ordered to return to Mexico, said ICE Restrepo, co-founder of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo.

Immediately after Biden took office, his administration announced it would cut back on immigration enforcement by focusing on public safety threats and those who illegally entered the US after November 1, 2020. President Donald Trump had declared all immigrants living illegally in the United States to be enforced and made cracking down on such immigrants a central part of his agenda.

Robles, Restrepo said, doesn’t fit the priorities. He owns a painting business and has lived in the USA for around 20 years. He and his wife have an 11-year-old daughter who is a US citizen. Two others are over 20 years old and recipients of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which gives immigrants who came to the United States as children a work permit and quasi-legal status.

Court and police records show that Robles has pleaded guilty to negligent and reckless driving and was arrested twice for domestic violence offenses, which were later dismissed. After a prison booking on one of the 2010 assault charges, he was embroiled in deportation proceedings, according to ICE court records.

According to Restrepo, none of the driving and personal injury charges are “serious crimes” under immigration law that relate to a critical criterion classified as a threat to public safety under the guidelines of the Biden administration.

“Let’s try it,” said Restrepo, and asked again for Robles’ release. She filed an application with the Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) last month, pointing out the new priorities she was granting.

On March 4, ICE announced a formal process to review cases from people who believe they do not fall under the new enforcement priorities.

The population of the nearly 1,600-bed Tacoma detention center, which had already declined dramatically due to releases and slow enforcement due to COVID-19, continued to decline. A few weeks ago, about 250 detainees were held, according to Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).

On Friday, ICE spokeswoman Tanya Román said there were around 205 detainees there. Still, she said the facility had not accelerated the pace of publications. “Custody decisions have always been made on a case-by-case basis.”

But, like Restrepo said Adams, it seems Biden’s policies are having an impact. Adams heard Thursday that one of the NWIRP clients who had been in prison for a year and a half would be released.

However, it remains to be seen whether ICE will make applications not only for the release of prisoners, but also for the cessation of deportation cases.

Robles’ chances of staying here are based in part on an application he made for a U-Visa that was granted to some crime victims. Robles was hit with a gun in a 2018 barber shop robbery. He is also fighting against his deportation order before the 9th Court of Appeal.

Jose Robles leaves the detention center in northwest Tacoma on Wednesday as family and friends gather to greet him. (Courtesy Sandy Restrepo of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo) (Yanira Torres /)

If neither gets through, Robles could ask ICE not to deport him in light of the new enforcement policy. It has that discretion.

Others are similarly pending, including another Mexican immigrant who has sought refuge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle for the past two years.

Although Jaime Rubio Sulficio has lived in a confined space for an extended period of time, he is fine, his wife Keiko Maruyama said in an email. “We hope that one day we have good news to report,” she continued.

While Robles waits for a resolution to his case, his joy of being at home is tempered by the effects of years of limitations in his life. “I don’t want to go outside,” he said. “I’m afraid.”