A man who recounted his longtime girlfriend’s arrest in a Seattle Times story about ramped-up immigration enforcement in Pacific County last month has now been detained, and says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents told him the arrest was because he was in the newspaper.
Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez, speaking by phone from the Northwest Detention Center, where he is being held, said said he got off work about 4 a.m. Monday — he harvests clams around Willapa Bay — went back to his Ocean Park home and, a few hours later, headed to Okie’s Thriftway Market for coffee and eggs.
An SUV blocked his path into the parking lot, he said. An ICE agent got out and approached his car.
“You are Rosas,” the agent said, according to Aburto Gutierrez. “You are the one from the newspaper.”
Aburto Gutierrez, 35, was not identified by name in The Seattle Times, though his nickname appeared in the Chinook Observer in an August story about his girlfriend, Gladys Diaz, and her arrest by immigration officials who he said answered an online ad she placed to sell a homemade piñata.
Let me park, Aburto Gutierrez told the agent. After he did and faced them, he asked: “Why are you arresting me?”
“My supervisor asked me to come find you because of what appeared in the newspaper,” the agent said, according to Aburto Gutierrez, relating the conversation in Spanish. The agent spoke in English, not a language the Mexican-born Aburto Gutierrez speaks fluently.
Aburto Gutierrez said he nevertheless understood — and concluded that his arrest was retaliation.
“We don’t retaliate,” ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley, speaking generally, told The Seattle Times when initially asked about Aburto Gutierrez’s arrest. She said she would look into this case specifically and provide more information.
She later sent a written statement that confirmed his arrest and detention but said nothing about whether ICE was retaliating against Aburto Gutierrez, or what role the newspaper story might have played in his arrest. Pressed on those points by phone, Haley declined to comment.
“It certainly is troubling,” said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project legal director Matt Adams when told Aburto Gutierrez’s account of his arrest. Adams said there might be grounds for exploring whether ICE’s actions violated Aburto Gutierrez’s right to free speech.
The Pacific County man said he cannot afford a lawyer or the $25,000 bond needed to be released from the detention center. He said he has not yet been given a court date.
Aburto Gutierrez said he has lived in the U.S. for 18 years. Crossing the border into California, the then-17-year-old made his way to Eastern Washington, where he had relatives who picked apples. He moved to Pacific County three years later after hearing its seafood industry was hiring and paying good wages.
Meeting in November to talk about his girlfriend’s arrest, he called himself a fool for thinking it was easy to make money in the U.S. He said he worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, in an industry that pays according to volume.
But he and Diaz, who met in Pacific County, created a life there. They had kids. While he harvested clams, she looked after the children and, sometimes, made and sold piñatas.
That came to an end when Diaz, along with their children, went to a bank parking lot in June to meet someone who had answered her online ad for a piñata. ICE agents were waiting.
Before taking her away, they walked her home to deliver their kids to Aburto Gutierrez.
“Why you don’t take us all?” he recalled asking the agents, since he also was here illegally.
They said Diaz had a prior deportation order — which stemmed from a decade ago when she was caught trying to sneak across the border, sent back and barred from re-entering the country — and he didn’t.
“ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy, and at times, exercises prosecutorial discretion when the circumstances of a particular case have extenuating factors like the care of minor children or an alien’s medical condition,” said the statement sent by Haley, which referred to the June encounter with Aburto Gutierrez.
“This does not mean an alien is exempt from future immigration enforcement.”
Given the unusual piñata sting operation, Diaz’s arrest was widely discussed in Pacific County. And it has served as an example of the way ICE in recent months has been taking away longtime residents with no apparent criminal records, despite President Donald Trump’s talk during his campaign about Mexicans he said were committing heinous crimes in the U.S.
Under Trump, ICE has said, it focuses on those who pose a threat to “national security, public safety and border security,” just as it did in the later years of President Barack Obama’s tenure. But Trump has broadened the categories of those deemed threatening while at the same time freeing agents to arrest anyone else they deem fit.
Even in a county that went for Trump in the election, ICE’s actions have been controversial. Beautiful but poor, this part of Southwest Washington depends on immigrant labor for its limited economy, revolving around seafood, cranberries and tourism.
Eventually, Diaz was deported and now lives, with their children, in a small town near Puerto Vallarta.
Speaking by phone this week, she broke into sobs as she talked about her boyfriend’s arrest. She said she would like to help him but doesn’t know how. She also worried about how she and her children would manage financially. Aburto Gutierrez has been sending money to support them.
He said he had intended to save money for another year in the U.S. and then to reunite with his family in Mexico. But he doesn’t want to be deported, he said, because that usually involves being barred from the U.S. for many years.
He said he wants to come back here when his children, who are U.S. citizens, are older and might help him live here legally.
So rather than volunteer to go back to Mexico, he said, he wants to stay and fight.
Seattle Times news artist Gabriel Campanario contributed to this report.
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