Scores of friends and supporters came to see Luis Martinez at Unison Arts Center Sunday. He’d only been released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention the prior Monday, June 17, after being picked up outside his office on the morning of January 16.
Why Martinez was picked up became an important question in his case. Judge Nelson Stephen Roman found no evidence he was ever served with papers explaining that earlier deportation orders against him — from around the turn of the century — had been reinstated, despite the fact that Martinez was in line for a U visa because he helped with the investigation into this brother’s murder in Newburgh. He was also never notified of his right to appeal, which he would have on the grounds that it was unsafe for him to return to Mexico, where his father had been gunned down.
Forced to produce evidence of the charges in court, government attorneys produced copies of the 1997 and 2019 deportation orders against Martinez, both signed by officer Timothy Nevin. Nevin was not the officer who detained Martinez last January, and he wasn’t even working in immigration in 1997. The Fifth-Amendment right to have notice of charges against oneself applies to all persons, not just citizens. Given the lack of evidence that Martinez’s rights had been respected, the judge signed the order freeing him on Flag Day.
Still in legal limbo
If it weren’t for that completely bungled paperwork, “I’d still be detained,” Martinez said. It took careful review by his attorneys to spot the flaws. The upswelling of community support — letters and resolutions in support, activism including a rally outside the facility in Goshen where he was then held — was also mentioned in the decision.
Martinez said that he feels the detention experience is intended to demoralize those caught up in it. It’s common for orders to release someone to be appealed, he said, and some people simply give up and leave voluntarily. The wording in the 38-page decision ordering his release didn’t allow for an appeal or deal with future arrest. Martinez remains in legal limbo unless and until a U visa is issued to him.
Martinez went to detention expecting that nearly everyone there would speak Spanish, but discovered people from West Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Western European nations. He also found that at 40 years old he was one of the youngest people there. Mindful of the many people who remain where he was until only days ago, he calls the entire situation “really sad.”
Sixty or more people were in attendance at Unison. Martinez’s voice occasionally choked up as he described feeling the community support even when he was detained. On March 24, the day of a rally outside the Orange County Jail, that support was palpable.
The rally, the letters in support, and the ways his family were aided by friends and neighbors all combine to make him very grateful that New Paltz is his home. “If I took all night,” he said, “I couldn’t thank everybody.”
He was later relocated to a facility in New Jersey.
Describing mixed emotions
Sadness was not on the agenda Sunday, even if many in attendance had mixed emotions. A table laden with food stretched wall to wall, with wine and coffee flowing freely. A steady stream of visitors hugged Martinez and family members. Many hadn’t seen him since his release.
Tina Martinez echoed her husband’s feelings of gratitude for the remarkable and ongoing support their family had received. The encouraging words and support made her grateful to have decided to rear their family here, she said. “New Paltz is the best place to live. I have never regretted it.”
Brother Leonardo Gomez described the relief at Martinez’s release as like a weight being lifted. He credited his family’s ability to weather tragedies like the murders of his half-brother in Newburgh and his mother’s first husband — Martinez’s father — in Mexico to the fact they rely upon one another as a family. “She was trying to protect her kids” by bringing them to the United States, he said. During his brother’s detention, he saw that support network grow to include many in the New Paltz community. This was the first time he’d seen his brother in more than five months, and he was experiencing waves of relief and other emotions.
Community organizer Ronnie Yastion found out Martinez was free the day after his release. She described the mood at the hearing as “super-hopeful.” But she started to feel doubt when the judge didn’t make his decision immediately from the bench. For her, Martinez’ release reaffirms her belief that New Paltz is a special place where political currents can run contrary to what’s going on nationally in what she calls “extraordinary times, and not in a good way.” The number of people who became involved by making calls, writing letters, attending events and rallies was striking to Yastion. “I don’t think this would happen anywhere else,” she said.
Fellow coordinator Dan Torres experienced mixed emotions. He was pleased that the community activism had helped Martinez, but he fretted about the months of business income lost and laid-off employees at Martinez’s Lalo Group, the stress upon family and friends, and the more than $20,000 just to house Martinez during detention, plus legal costs on both sides of the case. He found the revelation of fraudulent papers introduced as evidence troubling. What happens to people without attorneys?
“I want to change the system”
The third community coordinator, Alexandra Baer, is a friend of Martinez’s wife Ernestina. Bilingual herself, she told the guests that her father taught her, “When you see something wrong, change it,” She saw injustice, and worked to change it. She thanked those who helped the effort, saying that it was an example of working locally to effect change on a larger scale. The judge’s decision in the case is not a binding precedent, other attorneys might cite. Baer remains guarded. “ICE is unpredictable,” she said.
Baer too is proud of her community. “Ronnie, Dan and I asked a lot, and they delivered,” she said. “Letters. Rallies. Calls. More letters. They were always willing.”
Bill Weinstein has ties to Martinez through their children. “He always says hello, and he cares about the community we live in,” he said. “It’s a wonderful day, but we need to fight for all people in this situation.”
Martinez’s daughter Sharia, a rising senior in the high school here, has learned something. “I’m not going to stop fighting,” she said to loud applause. Though she doesn’t know what form her activism will take, she’s sure her life has been shaped by this family experience. “I want to change the system. I want to save other people. I want to help people in our country and the world.”
Twenty pounds trimmer than when he last walked free on the streets of New Paltz, Luis Martinez greeted friends and strangers alike with the same grace his family showed during the entire ordeal, according to supporters. He didn’t excuse himself until he was reunited with a man who had been detained on the same day and was also released just recently. For all the support he received from those on the outside, there are doubtless some things that can only be fully understood by someone else who has been there, too.