By Gregory B. Hladky
4:55 PM EDT, October 22, 2013
Jose Maria Islas and Clayton Richard Gordon wouldn't seem to have all that much in common.
One is Hispanic, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who lives in New Haven and works at a factory in Hamden. The other is black, arrived in this country legally at age six from Jamaica, served honorably in the U.S. Army, has his own business and lives with his young family in Bloomfield.
What binds them together is the ongoing controversy over our deeply flawed national immigration system and the efforts of federal officials to get both men out of the country.
For more than a year, Islas has been a symbol in Connecticut of what's wrong with the Obama administration's deportation policies. And it now looks like Gordon may become the next cause célèbre for this state's immigration activists.
After demonstrations, protests by local and state officials and repeated pleas by members of Connecticut's congressional delegation, officials of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have just granted Islas a 12-month reprieve on his deportation order.
Islas is now back at his factory job in Hamden, hoping to help pay off some of the $10,000 in debts he's racked up fighting his legal battles.
Gordon is currently sitting in a prison cell in Greenfield, Mass. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union urged a federal judge last week to at least give Gordon the opportunity to post bail while his deportation order is being appealed.
"It's horrible," says Gordon's fiancé, Kim Wierzchowski.
Wierzchowski is 28 and Gordon 10 years older. They met about four years ago, fell in love, and bought their first house together in Bloomfield. She's a registered nurse; Gordon owns his own small contracting business in Hartford. They have a three-year-old son named Dillon.
"My son, I can't take him there [the prison in Massachusetts] to see his father," she says. "He's only three, so I tell him his daddy is at work… What else can I say?"
"Dillon asks for him every night, and he prays his daddy can come home from work soon," Wierzchowski says.
Officials in the Obama administration say their deportation policies are now only supposed to target hard-core criminals like drug dealers, rapists, and murderers.
Neither Islas nor Gordon seems to fit into that category.
The "serious" offense on Islas' record was that he made four unsuccessful attempts in 2005 to cross into the U.S. to find work, was picked up each time and sent back over the Mexican border. He finally made it on his fifth try and found his way to New Haven and a job at that Hamden factory.
He was picked up by Hamden cops in June 2012 on what turned out to be bogus suspicion of being involved in a bicycle theft. (Immigration activists says police were looking for a "short, brown man" and found Islas while he was on his lunch break.)
The original charges were dropped but Islas ended up pleading guilty to disorderly conduct simply to get out of jail after four months. Part of his plea bargain was a special probation, which he completed, and all charges were erased from his record.
That didn't stop state marshals from turning Islas over to ICE, despite a Connecticut policy that's supposed to prevent nonviolent undocumented immigrants like Islas from being deported. Federal officials ordered his deportation but finally caved in from all the public pressure and granted him that one-year stay.
"He's working, he's trying to raise the money to pay off the debts he incurred," says John Lugo, an activist with New Haven-based Unidad Latina en Accion.
Lugo says that group is hoping to do some fundraising to help Islas out, but it also needs funding to work on four other Connecticut deportation cases, including Gordon's.
Gordon came onto ICE's deportation radar because of a past drug conviction, even though he was a legal resident of the United States.
He came to this country legally in 1982 and has lived here ever since. Gordon joined the National Guard in 1994, began active duty in the U.S. Army in 1996, and was honorably discharged in 1999.
(Foolishly, Gordon thought his U.S. military service meant he had also achieved U.S. citizenship. It didn't.)
In 2008, Connecticut cops arrested Gordon after they found cocaine in the house where he was living with relatives. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell, spent one day in jail and successfully completed his sentence of three years probation.
According to the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, Gordon had "turned his life around." At the time of his arrest, he was involved in renovating a property in a depressed urban area to create a home for single mothers who were getting out of prison.
On June 20, 2013, Gordon said goodbye to his wife Kim and their son Dillon, climbed in his truck and headed to work. That was when he was pulled over and arrested by ICE agents. They took him to Massachusetts, leaving his truck on the side of the road.
"I got a call from him," Wierzchowski remembers. "He said, 'I think they got the wrong man, I keep telling them they got the wrong man… It's crazy!' "
The ACLU got involved, filing suit on behalf of Gordon and about 50 other people who were also arrested by the feds on old felony charges and held without the opportunity to make bond.
ICE is using a "mandatory detention" program for such people, allegedly on the grounds that they are dangerous.
"But for years, ICE has misapplied mandatory detention to individuals like Mr. Gordon who have been living in the community for years since their release without incident," lawyers for the ACLU said in court documents.
In August, a deportation order was issued for Gordon. That is now under appeal.
A hearing was held in federal court in Springfield last week on Gordon's plea to be allowed to post bond and get back to his family while his appeal is considered.
Adriana Lafaille, an attorney with the Massachusetts ACLU, says the judge in the case indicated he "might try to rule early" on Gordon's request to be allowed to post bond.
It can't possibly come too soon for Wierzchowski.
She's been meeting with state officials (who advised her to start the long process of seeking a state pardon for Gordon), looking to talk with Connecticut's U.S. senators, and starting online petitions to drum up support for Gordon's case.
"I make good money as a nurse," Wierzchowski says, "but we had two incomes… and it's getting hard to pay the bills now."
There's also those nightly questions from Dillon about when his daddy's going to come home. His mom doesn't have any good answers.
"It's just been a nightmare," she says.
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