Jose Bello’s girlfriend Edith Mata flanked by Bello’s two brothers, Ulises Robiero and Brian Robiero, with UCLA attorney Jordan Wells outside the Federal Courthouse in San Francisco (photo by Tammerlin Drummond, Courtesy of ACLU of Northern California)

José Bello, a student, activist, and farmworker, has been held in Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield, California since May 14 after he recited a poem criticizing the immigration enforcement and detention practices of the United States. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Bello just 36 hours after performing his poem “Dear America” at a public forum held by the Kern County Board of supervisors. The arrest, the ACLU argues, violates Bello’s First Amendment rights.

“We demand our respect. We want our dignity back. / Our roots run deep in this country, now that’s a true fact … We don’t want your jobs. We don’t want your money. / We’re here to work hard, pay taxes, and study,” Bello’s poem reads.

Bello, 22-year-old father and student at Bakersfield College who arrived in the US at age three, wrote his poem after he was first detained by ICE in 2018. He was released in August last year after a crowdfunding campaign helped raise his $10,000 bond. This time around, Bello’s bond is set at $50,000, a “highly unusual” amount according to the ACLU. Bonds of this sort are “usually set around $20,000 or less,” the ACLU wrote in a petition it filed with the San Francisco District Court.

“Mr. Bello earns at most $20,000 a year — less than half his bond amount — and has no significant assets,” the ACLU’s filing added, “He plainly cannot afford such a high bond.” A new GoFundMe campaign was set up to help cover Bello’s legal fees.

According to the ACLU’s habeas corpus petition, the close succession between the arrest and Bello’s public reading of his poem “strongly indicates that ICE acted in retaliation against Mr. Bello for his speech expressing views against the agency’s actions.”

“His arrest and detention violate the first amendment’s prohibition on government retaliation for protected speech and its related prohibition on viewpoint discrimination,” the ACLU continued. “If left unaddressed, ICE’s actions will chill immigrant speakers from sharing criticisms of the agency at the very same time that its escalating aggression and increasing use of detention are at the center of public debate.”

In a hearing held yesterday, July 15, at the San Francisco federal court, ACLU attorneys representing Bello argued that the activist was detained as retribution for his poem. “What’s at stake is the right of not only an immigrant, but anyone to criticize the federal government without fear of retaliation for those criticisms,” attorney Jordan Wells said outside the federal court’s building, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A group of about 50 friends, family members, and supporters gathered outside the courthouse to voice their support. Gwendolyn Wu of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Benjamin Wolinsky, the US attorney representing the federal government, did not provide evidence against the retaliatory claim made at the hearing.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

“We are deeply concerned by these events, which raise the question as to whether Bello was targeted by ICE for his criticism of the agency,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs, in a statement released on June 28. This case, Benavidez said, joins other detentions of activists who have publicly criticized ICE’s practices. “It appears we’re seeing a targeted attempt to silence those who speak critically of immigration policy,” Benavidez said, “ICE’s obligations as a government agency include respect for and adherence to the First Amendment, but actions like these call into question the agency’s commitment to the Constitutional right to free speech.”

Update 8/1/19: On July 29, PEN America filed a friend of the court brief urging a federal appeals court in California to immediately release Jose Bello, claiming for a violation of his First Amendment rights.

“Mr. Bello enjoys a constitutional right to speak freely, to be free from retaliation for that speech, and to be free from efforts to restrain his ongoing speech on matters of public concern,” PEN America wrote in its filing with the Ninth Circuit. “Moreover, listeners and participants in the ongoing immigration debate have a concomitant right to receive his expressed viewpoints, without government officials deliberately interfering with the flow of that information with a censorial and retaliatory motive and effect,” the filing further argued. “Despite these protections, ICE acted in retaliation for protected speech that was critical of them, striking at the very heart of the First Amendment,” it continued.

“We are calling on the Ninth Circuit to affirm Jose Bello’s political and artistic speech by fortifying his right to be free from government retaliation,” Benavidez added in a statement. “Protest poetry has a long and proud tradition in the United States that must be vigorously defended in our courts of law.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative...