Immigrants ICE detained in Highlandtown released after lawyers intervene

Serbando Fernando Rodriguez has been allowed to stay in the country after being detained by ICE agents. (Michael Ares/Baltimore Sun video)

The immigration arrests of a barber and a small business owner in February galvanized many in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood.

Neither man had a criminal record. Protesters hit the streets. Lawyers snapped into action. Nervous friends and family took to prayer.


Today, after advocacy lawyers succeeded in arguing their cases before immigration judges, both men have been released from the Frederick County Detention Center and reunited with their friends and family.

"They could have easily been removed from the country, but they have viable cases," said Michelle N. Mendez, a senior attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network who represented both men. "This is why we shouldn't be doing these fast-tracked deportations. If the person has access to competent counsel, it makes a big difference."


Serbando Rodriguez, the barber and bike mechanic who had faced deportation to Honduras, was back in Highlandtown this week, repairing bicycles for neighborhood kids and adults.

A judge heard his account of hardship in fleeing gang violence and ruled last month that his removal order should be withheld.

During an interview at the Southeast Community Development Corp. this week, Rodriguez, 38, joked with friends as his nimble hands fixed bike tires.

"I'm very happy to be back with the community and the kids again," he said, a big smile crossing his face. "I now have another opportunity to keep improving myself and the community."


Segundo Paucar, 31, a small-business owner, also had been reunited with his family, Mendez said. A judge ordered his case reopened after hearing how he had come to the country as a minor decades ago. He was unavailable for an interview.

Both men will have to check in regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mendez said. ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ellen Dew, a lawyer with DLA Piper who teamed with Mendez as a pro-bono attorney on Rodriguez's case, said strong legal representation can make a difference in immigration cases.

Immigrants facing deportation are four times more likely to lose their case if they don't have an attorney, the advocates say.

"It was a great outcome," Dew says. "It was a lot of work but a great outcome."

Southeast Baltimore immigration advocates rushed into high gear after ICE agents arrested Rodriguez and Paucar. The agents accused Rodriguez of "illegally re-entering the United States after a previous deportation" and Paucar of being an "immigration fugitive with a final order of removal" issued more than a decade ago.

President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order this year authorizing the hiring of 10,000 more immigration enforcement agents and broadening the categories of immigrants to be detained and deported.

That marked a change to federal immigration enforcement from President Barack Obama's final years in office.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said there would be no "mass deportation" in America. Rather, he said, Trump has returned the discretion to enforce immigration laws to individual ICE officers.

Jessica M. Vaughan — director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration — said the court proceedings show that "people who cry and scream about ICE" are overreacting.

"This is how the system works," she said. "An encounter with ICE is not necessarily a trap door that leads to removal. If the advocacy groups want to be taken seriously, they can't go around crying wolf every time ICE makes an arrest."

Vaughan argued that Trump has inserted "integrity" into the system.

"Clearly these individuals are accessing the very generous due process that our system provides," Vaughan said. "The question is, if they don't ultimately succeed in being allowed to stay, what does the government do next? Under the Obama administration they would ignore the case. Now it's clear under the Trump administration that the policies have changed and they face arrest and removal."

In response to the Baltimore arrests, activists rallied in Annapolis for immigrant rights and marched in protest through East Baltimore. Some businesses closed for a day to demonstrate what a day without immigrants might look like. The Open Society Institute's Baltimore branch announced a new $500,000 legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants.

Since immigration offenses are often civil violations — not crimes — those accused are typically not entitled to a public defender and often have to face a judge alone.

"I'm encouraged that the two men were released," said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents Southeast Baltimore. "However, the impact of these arrests has been completely destabilizing for a community that already has a tenuous relationship with law enforcement. It caused a lot of fear."

Cohen said the lawyers' efforts show that Baltimore has rallied around the city's immigrant population.

"A lot of people have stepped up. The law firms have contributed pro-bono services," he said. "Baltimore is a welcoming place. The vast majority of a community wants it to stay that way."

Rodriguez was released last month after Immigration Judge Elizabeth A. Kessler granted his withholding of removal application. Withholding of removal is a narrow form of relief that prevents him from being deported as long as he faces persecution or torture in Honduras.

The lawyers said Rodriguez left Central America five years ago after he was threatened by gangs in La Ceiba, Honduras. Honduras has the second highest homicide rate of any country in the world, according to the United Nations. The United States is 94th.

While the order is not absolute, it will likely permit him to stay in the country long term, his lawyers say.

He spent five months in detention as lawyers pressed for his freedom. There, his lawyers say, he put his barber skills to work.

"Even in detention he was giving people haircuts for their court dates so they looked nice," Dew said. "He organized an exercise group for detainees so they could keep their fitness goals. He was worrying about everyone else."

Rodriguez said he knew some of the men would be deported after their hearings. "We made sure they looked presentable and clean cut for whatever way they were going," he said.

When Dew got down about the possible outcomes in the case, Rodriguez was optimistic.

"He's unfailingly positive and optimistic," she said. "We were concerned given the stated goals of our current administration. He always had faith. He always knew things would work out."

Mendez watched Rodriguez's dog, Neron, while he was locked up. He now calls her his sister.

She keeps a video on her phone of Rodriguez reuniting with his dog outside the courthouse in Baltimore.

He said his detention was difficult.


"It was really bad. It was terrible. It was a really hard to be in there without being able to do anything, not to be able to work, not to be with your people.


"I thought that I now needed to do things better than I did them before. I have now another opportunity to keep improving myself and the community."

Even before the gang threats in Honduras, he says, life was tough.

"My father gave me away when I was a kid and I said to myself, 'I'm going to be better than my dad was to me. I'm going to be other people's father figure,'" he said. "Where I can help somebody, I will be there."

At the bike repair space, his friend Andy Dahl, the manager of community programs at the community development center, watches Rodriguez work.

"Serbando is amazing," he says. "He's happy and full of energy and always positive. He's one of the best bike mechanics I've been around. He's not just skilled; he has a style. It's like an art."

When Rodriguez was locked up, Dahl worried day and night.

"It was a really tragic situation," Dahl says. "It was a long four months of waiting and working and worrying."

And while he's happy about his friend's release, he's concerned about others.

"Yes, we we able to save Serbando," he said. "But how many other people around the country don't have access to these resources?"