Sun, Aug 21, 2011
Giraldo is caught — unjustly, he says — by a federal program aimed at serious criminals and security risks
Early in the morning last June 4, William Giraldo stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Sunset Park for a coffee. Two days later, standing next to his fiancé, the 24-year-old car-service driver saw himself on the local newscast. It was a 20-second grainy video clip of Giraldo at the cash register of Dunkin’ Donuts, wearing a white t-shirt and white earphones.
Initially, he and his fiancée Sandra Alvarado, laughed at the sight of him on television. But after realizing that the New York Police Department was looking for him as the suspect in an attempted rape near the donut shop, Giraldo began to panic. While he was the man in the surveillance video, he had not committed the crime.
Yet as the result of coming forward voluntarily, the father of two now faces deportation — not for the crime but for his status as an illegal immigrant. He is due in court next month where a judge will make the decision whether he stays with his family in Brooklyn or returns back to Colombia.
“I did not do anything wrong,” said Giraldo. “I did what any person would do to clear up their name in the situation. I went to the police station. The last thing on my mind was my immigration status. I just wanted to clear up my name.”
The events leading to Giraldo’s tenuous situation only began with the surveillance video itself. After a sleepless night and at the urging of his family, Giraldo decided to go to the nearest police precinct, in Bensonhurst, to absolve himself from any wrongdoing.
Unfortunately for Giraldo, proving his innocence turned out to be more difficult than he expected. After he told the police he was the man in the video but not the criminal they were looking for, he was sent to Brooklyn’s Special Victims Unit for further interrogation. The 28-year-old woman who was attacked was also brought in for a line-up, where she picked Giraldo as her attacker.
On June 8, which was supposed to be the day of his wedding in Florida, Giraldo was arraigned. He recalls police officers and people outside the court house in Brooklyn accosting him. The night before, the New York Post, New York Daily News, local news stations, and various other news outlets had reported his arrest in the attempted rape of a young woman in Sunset Park.
“Most of them knew who I was,” said Giraldo. “So they were calling my name. They were just looking at me like garbage. I heard people in the streets screaming names and insulting me.”
He was charged with four felonies and three misdemeanors involving rape, sex abuse, robbery, assault and sexual misconduct. Judge John Wilson posted his bail at $200,000. Giraldo spent what he called a terrifying few days in protective custody away from the regular detainees at Rikers Island.
At his next scheduled court appearance on June 10, Giraldo hoped he would be set free. He had learned from his lawyer, Heriberto Cabrera, that his accuser had told the court she had made a mistake when she picked Giraldo from the line-up.
Giraldo did not see the judge that day, but was told by his lawyer that Judge Desmond Green had released him out on custody without bail for his criminal case. Yet, because of Giraldo’s illegal immigration status, the court had turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Giraldo spent a few more days at Rikers Island before being transferred to an immigration detention center in New Jersey’s Bergen County jail.
After a month, Giraldo was released on $7,500 bail. His next court appearance is set for September 8 for his criminal case and September 13 for his immigration case.
According to Lou Martinez, an immigration official based in New York, Giraldo entered the United States in 1999 on a tourist visa for a temporary period, not to exceed a year, from Colombia. “I left Colombia with my mom at the age 12 and never looked back,” Giraldo said.
He has not returned back to Colombia since moving to Borough Park, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, with his mother. Giraldo does not remember much of his life in Colombia. “All I know is my life here in New York,” he said.
His mother enrolled Giraldo at John J. Pershing Middle School in Sunset Park, where he learned English. He eventually graduated from Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Borough Park, where Giraldo first met his fiancé Sandra Alvarado, a Colombian citizen residing legally in the United States.
After a few years of what Giraldo calls “doing the whole party and club scene,” as well as a failed first marriage, he decided to settle down with his longtime girlfriend. The two moved into a small but comfortable apartment in Bensonhurst. Giraldo began working as a driver for La New Express car-service company and Alvarado waited tables at the Olive Garden in Time Square. Giraldo has a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son from a previous marriage.
Meanwhile, Giraldo never made any effort to become a legal resident of the United States, hoping instead to avoid coming to the attention of authorities. “I thought I could just keep my head down and not get in trouble with the police, he recalled, “I’d be okay.”
But Giraldo did come into contact with police as a result of the rape case, and because of his illegal immigration status, he spent 30 days in the Bergen County jail. Giraldo’s detention at the county jail in New Jersey occurred because of a federal program, called the Secure Communities Program, which makes it easier for immigration authorities to access the fingerprints of people booked at local jails and begin the deportation proceeding for illegal immigrants. Although Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended New York’s involvement with the federal program on June 1, Giraldo was still booked by immigration authorities on June 10.
“I don’t think it is right from their part,” said Giraldo. “ It was actually illegal. It is like they said, ‘We couldn’t throw anything against you, I’m going to throw you to the lion’s cage.’”
While jailed at Rikers Island, Giraldo was interviewed by immigration officers, who determined Giraldo was in the country illegally and placed him on hold for removal proceeding.
Immigration officials have said the Secure Communities Program is aimed at criminals who have committed serious offenses. However, the majority of people held at Rikers are like Giraldo, with no criminal or minor misdemeanors. According to New York’s City Council, in 2009 about half of the immigrants flagged by federal authorities at Rikers Island had no prior conviction and 20 percent had a misdemeanor as their highest conviction.
“This is why programs like the Secure Communities and others do not work,” said Lindsey Nash, an attorney at the Immigrant Justice Clinic of Cardozo School of Law. “They cast such a huge net, use no discretion and strain the relationship between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement.”
Last week, the Obama administration said it would stop deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security. The change in policy comes after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency shift in capturing illegal immigrants with serious offenses. Last year, half of illegals removed—more than 195,000—were convicted criminals. Nicole Navas, a spokesperson for the immigration agency, said they expect the number to decrease this year.
The new mandate from the White House is expected to lead to the review about 300,000 cases of illegal immigrants currently in the removal proceedings. Many of these cases involve people who came to the United States as young children, and have gone through American schools, sometimes continuing into college.
Critics of the plan say it is cutting corners when it comes to immigration law. “This is a slap in the face to those who are currently in the process of coming to America,” said Bob Dane, spokesperson for Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington-based organization that seeks to stop illegal immigration. “It is unfair and rewards the law-breaking.”
Giraldo sees this opportunity has a second chance but remains cautions.
“I’m happy to hear the news,” he said, “but I won’t believe it until I see it.”
After his release last month, Giraldo is trying to rebuild his life. His first act as temporarily free man was to marry his longtime girlfriend, Sandra Alvarado. Although they were supposed to get married in Florida, they decided on a backyard wedding in their home in Bensonhurst.
Giraldo has nothing bad to say to the woman who accused him of attempted rape but disagrees with the legal system decision to turn him over to immigration. He has quit his job and wants to go back to school for graphic design in the fall. Giraldo is also seeking therapy to deal with the stress of the past couple of months.
“I just need someone to talk to about this what happened to me,” he said. “I’ve been feeling paranoid about leaving my house or being alone in public. I need to get my life back.”
Next month, Giraldo will be in court for both his criminal and immigration case. He and his lawyer expect the criminal charges to officially be dropped. Although Giraldo has been told by his lawyer that the news of the immediate change in the deportation of illegal immigrants will affect the outcome of his future, the young man remains unsure.
“I still think it is in God’s hands,” he said.