Freedom Rings for Julio

An undocumented American is released from the Tacoma immigration prison.

In the late afternoon of June 6, Julio Gonzalez was lying on his bunk bed at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, having just finished his $1-a-day job at the facility's laundry. Gonzalez had spent the past four months at the prisonlike detention center, which holds immigrants facing deportation proceedings. The 47-year-old, Mexican-born man whose mother was an American citizen had lived virtually all of his life in the U.S., and he had married an American citizen. But he couldn't prove it, and the chances of him being allowed to stay in this country were looking slim. At a court hearing in May, an immigration judge had said she was going to issue an order sending him to Mexico.

But on this day, a detention center officer called him to the front desk. "I thought I was getting mail," recalls Gonzalez, who was featured in a Seattle Weekly article on the detention center ("They Could Be Citizens and They Might Be Deported," April 26). Instead, the officer told Gonzalez he was being released. "It surprised the heck out of me," he says.

At his hearing in May, Judge Victoria Young said she had no choice but to order that he leave the country. According to complex and often seemingly arbitrary immigration laws, Gonzalez could claim American citizenship through his late mother, but only if he proved that his mother lived in the U.S. for a certain number of years before his birth and after she was 14. Gonzalez could offer no proof at the hearing. Afterward, he did gather affidavits from family members who attested to his mother's residency in the U.S. But he mailed them to Young, with a request to reopen the case, only one day before he was released, leading him to believe that the judge couldn't have received them in time to prompt his release.

Young had seemed reluctant to deport Gonzalez, however. In the end, she never entered an order to that effect. The only order recorded by the court is the one on June 6 granting him "relief" from deportation. The court will not provide the full text of the written decision, or any other information, without a Freedom of Information Act request that takes weeks or months to fulfill.

Gonzalez was so excited about getting out of the detention center that he forgot his phone number. So without calling, he borrowed money from another released inmate and took a bus home. He knocked on the window of his Kent apartment, startling his 24-year-old son, Julio, who was inside playing video games. His wife, Charlotte, burst into tears. Gonzalez was home in time for Father's Day, just as Charlotte had prayed. Gonzalez, his wife, his son Julio, and two other children spent the day at the park, barbecuing and playing dominos.

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