A Bakersfield College student and farmworker who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after publicly reading a poem critical of the agency was released Monday afternoon after two NFL players and immigration advocacy organizations posted his bail.
After ICE arrested Jose Bello on May 15, his bond was set at $50,000. NFL players Josh Norman and Demario Davis both pitched in to pay for the bond. The New York Immigrant Freedom Fund and The National Bail Fund Network also contributed.
Bello told Valley Public Radio it’s a "big honor" that NFL players and both organizations helped bail him out of the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield. He said he feels "blessed" and "privileged.”
“Jose Bello was exercising a fundamental right that we pride ourselves on as Americans,” said Norman, a cornerback for the Washington Redskins, in a statement. “If he was detained for reciting a peaceful poem then we should really ask ourselves, are our words truly free? This is America right? Where the 1st Amendment is freedom of speech unless I missed the memo somewhere. He was exercising that right.”
Davis, who’s an outside linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, said in a statement, “we’ve seen ICE round up a 22-year-old father, Jose, because he read a critical poem. We’ve seen ICE round up nearly 700 people in Mississippi and leave their children without parents, we’ve seen them turn away asylum seekers who will face certain death in their home countries. Is this America? We must say no, and we must start by helping our most vulnerable.”
Both Norman and Davis are part of the Players Coalition, a nonprofit and advocacy organization focused on police and community relations, criminal justice reform, education and economic advancement.
The New York Immigration Freedom Fund and The National Bail Fund both work to pay bonds for immigrants who can’t afford it.
“With detention reaching unprecedented levels, we have to step up the fight to free immigrants like Jose,” said Lee Wang, director of the New York Fund, in a statement.
A First Amendment lawsuit filed by the ACLU Southern California argued the arrest and bail amount was unconstitutional and retaliatory because it didn’t take Bello’s circumstances and financial situation into account. Bello only makes about $20,000 a year, and “had no means to pay the ICE-assigned bail,” according to a statement from the ACLU.
ACLU attorney Jordan Wells said the law permits ICE to set bails that are affordable.
“The only way to make sense of the $50,000 bail amount is to understand it as retaliation for Jose’s poem criticizing the agency and thumbing his nose at the Trump administration's immigration policies," Wells said.
This is the second time Bello has received funds that helped to bail him out of the Mesa Verde. The last time Bello was detained his bond was set at $10,000 and various community groups raised money to make bail.
According to the lawsuit, after an officer told Bello his bond was set at $50,000 he “mocked” him and said, “We’ll see if you can get your friends to raise the bond money again.”
“A bond amount this high is highly unusual and would be unaffordable for most immigrant detainees; far more commonly, bonds are set at $20,000 or less,” the lawsuit filed through the Northern District of California Court said.
Bello was arrested two days after reading his poem titled “Dear America” in front of the Kern County Board of Supervisors during a TRUTH Act forum, which is a required yearly public meeting to review local dealings with ICE under the Transparent Review of Unjust Transfers and Holds Act.
“Our administration has failed,” the beginning of the poem read. “They passed laws against our people, took away our rights and our freedom, and still expect to be hailed?”
“Dear America, do not consider this a threat,” another part of the poem said. “Our intentions are to continue to make America great. It’s time to begin standing up for what’s right. Criminalizing children, separating families. Our national security, does this make it alright? No. It doesn’t and it won’t.”
The lawsuit said it’s a “strong indication” ICE was retaliating against Bello because he read his poem only 36 hours prior to being arrested outside of his Bakersfield home.
“The officer threatened Mr. Bello by stating that if anything bad were to happen to Mr. Bello’s family, it would be Mr. Bello’s fault unless he started cooperating by answering the officer’s questions,” court documents say. “The officer told Mr. Bello, ‘We know who you are and what you’re all about.’”
The story has gained national attention. In an email to Valley Public Radio, Ambar Tovar, directing attorney for the UFW Foundation's Removal Defense Project, said "we believe that legal representation and advocacy played such a huge role in this case." The Foundation is also representing Bello pro bono in his immigration case.
Bello said this is an example of how important it is to have legal representation, but that many people in the San Joaquin Valley can't afford an attorney.
“At the end of the day you're going up against a government attorney,” he said. “We were a team and I wouldn't be able to do this on my own. I’m grateful for that. We haven’t won the war yet but this was a very important battle.”
Bello, who’s been outspoken about immigrant rights, said he will continue to provide resources to people in his community to make sure they know their rights.
Last month, Judge Sallie Kim rejected the argument that Bello’s arrest was unconstitutional and retaliatory. Although the judge’s nine-page decision said ICE’s timing to re-arrest Bello was “highly suggestive of retaliatory intent” the argument didn’t prove that ICE wouldn't have arrested him had he not read his poem. The ACLU is appealing the decision.
Kim said ICE’s decision to arrest Bello was justified because the agency isn’t required to show probable cause to re-arrest an immigrant and the intent the officer had is “irrelevant and does not provide a basis for invalidating the arrest.”
Bello was arrested and put into removal proceedings in May 2018 and less than five months later was arrested for a DUI. He was sentenced to five days in jail.
“And there is no dispute that ICE has an objectively reasonable legal justification to re-arrest an immigrant already on bond who then is convicted of misdemeanor DUI,” Kim’s decision said. “Had Petitioner not been arrested for DUI, this would be a different case, but such facts are not before this Court.”
Tovar said Bello will continue to fight his immigration case in San Francisco Immigration Court and they are waiting to hear when Bello’s next court date will be.
“Many immigrants face a cruel and dehumanizing immigration court system that very often strips them of their due process rights, alone and without attorney representation,” she said. “Our hope is that no one like Jose faces court alone simply because of their inability to afford representation.”
After about three months at Mesa Verde, Bello said he is grateful he now gets to see his mom and spend time with his son.
"Everything the community did made a difference," he added.