A few months ago, Jose Bello’s future looked grim: detention, imprisonment, deportation and a long-term separation from his infant son.
His only offense, he claimed, was reading a poem.
At a meeting in May of the Kern County board of supervisors in Bakersfield, the 22-year-old Mexico native, farmworker and outspoken college activist had pushed up to the podium, leaned into the mic and recited the verses that would set off an uproar.
“Dear America,” Bello began, “our administration has failed/ took away our rights and our freedom/ and still expect to be hailed?”
In a steady tone at odds with his fiery message, he went on. “Dear America / You and your administration cause fear, / fear through Separation, / Instead of building trust with our people, do y’all prefer this racial tension?”
Thirty-six hours later, on the morning of May 15, officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Bello outside his home in Bakersfield. Later that day, his mother, Araceli Reyes, was surprised to see her son’s car still parked outside the family home; normally he would be working in the nearby fields by 8 a.m.
Soon, family and friends would learn that Bello, who was born in Mexico and has lived in the United States without a legal status since he was 3 years old, had been placed in immigration detention and was facing deportation and a potentially long-term split from his 1-year-old U.S.-born son, Ethan.
His case quickly drew the support of immigrant-rights advocates, who assert that Bello is a victim of overreaching federal agents, emboldened by the Trump administration’s policies, who trampled on his 1st Amendment rights.
Bello had experienced a run-in with ICE a year earlier, in May 2018, that landed him in a detention center for several months until friends and family came up with his $10,000 bond. But this time his bail was set at $50,000.
His detractors, including groups that favor more restrictions on immigration, say that Bello is correctly paying the price for being in the country without legal status, after his previous arrest in 2018 and a DUI-related arrest earlier this year put him on ICE’s radar.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging that his latest arrest violated Bello’s free speech rights, and is urging for his $50,000 bail to be lowered. The ACLU argued that Bello was being punished simply for speaking his mind.
“We think [the arrest is] a part of ICE’s retaliation against him and desire to silence a prominent activist and critic of the agency,” said Jordan Wells, the main attorney on the case. An ICE spokesman in San Francisco declined to comment, citing privacy laws.
On July 16, a U.S. District Court in San Francisco rejected the ACLU’s lawsuit, and in a previous phone interview from the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, where he was being held, Bello was despondent. He’d seen grown men weep because they couldn’t provide for their families while locked in detention.
“Everyone is just miserable,” Bello said in a muffled, scratchy voice. “I feel a lot of frustration and a lot of helplessness.”
But after spending 90 days in detention, Bello got help from surprising benefactors. Last month, two National Football League players stepped forward — along with the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund and the National Bail Fund Network — to pay Bello’s $50,000 bail.
Josh Norman, a cornerback for the Washington Redskins, and Demario Davis, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, had heard about Bello’s case through members of the Players Coalition, a group that brings athletes together to focus on various social justice issues. In an interview, Norman said that immigrants with uncertain legal status, like Bello, had few options or resources, and he wanted to help.
“I mean, when is enough enough?” Norman said. “You got families and people that are heartbroken and torn apart because of the things we are doing in our country. We gotta have this young man’s back.”
Norman’s representative said the football player had been active on behalf of immigrant rights for the last year. He has made donations to a detention center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and pushed for education reform across the county.
He hopes to see more athletes do the same.
“We moved the needle,” he said, “but there is much more to be done in that space.”
Being bailed out — let alone by two NFL pros — caught Bello by surprise, though his attorney had known three days earlier that help was coming.
“I felt really honored and privileged to be able to say that I was able to get through this whole ordeal and come out with all that support,” Bello said.
On Aug. 12, Bello was released from detention and is now back home. He said that at the time he was detained he was “taking the extra steps to become a provider for my son, to be a better son to my mom, a better role model for my little brother.” He remains convinced that he was targeted by ICE because of his public recital.
Bello also vows to continue to advocate for other immigrants without a legal status.
“I’m always going to speak up and be vocal about the needs that face my community,” Bello said. “There’s a lot of undocumented folks, especially with the fact that I’ve worked in the fields, and that’s something that’s always been part of my life. I can’t turn a blind eye.”
Members of a Washington, D.C.-based group that favors restrictions on immigration, however, say that Bello’s public outcry isn’t the reason that he was placed in detention.
“The reason he’s there is for violations of U.S. immigration law,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “That’s what the law prescribes.”
Growing up in Bakersfield, Bello saw that many in his community shared his confusion about the limitations of living in the United States without a legal status.
After he turned 16, Bello started helping his mother working the fields. Over the years, Bello became a farmworker himself, leaving early in the morning to pick vegetables and fruit, while still studying in high school and college, Reyes, his mother, said.
About two years ago, he enrolled in Bakersfield College, where he majors in political science and participates in several campus organizations, including Youth Empowering Success, a group that advocates for foster youth and previously incarcerated students.
And in his free time, he wrote poems, like “Dear America,” the one he performed in front of the Kern County Board of Supervisors. In his essays and poetry, Bello often recalls the experiences he had growing up, said Octavio Barajas, Bello’s mentor at Bakersfield College.
Barajas remembers one particular essay that Bello wrote about cutting his hair before coming to the United States in order to appear more “American.”
But, while Bello was growing up, Barajas said, “He had a lack of understanding of what it meant to have status, to be documented.”
“He was really confused about it,” Barajas said. “This thing that he felt should be so minuscule has such a big detriment on his life.”
Bello’s older brother, Oscar Bello, was deported to Mexico last year. Bello plans to return to college this fall and get back on track to graduate, in part so that he can continue to help his mother, whom he has supported financially and emotionally since he was a teenager.
“He would always tell me in the tough times, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, we are going to get through this,’ ” Reyes said in Spanish. “When he would get his paycheck he would immediately give it to me, and he would say, ‘Here you go, Mom, for whatever you need to pay.’”
When Bello was first arrested by ICE in May 2018, he was placed in detention and released at the end of August when other students, family and friends rallied to raise money for his bond. Many of them had admired Bello for the work he did at Bakersfield College and for being outspoken about his immigration status.
“A lot of folks are too afraid to publicly be out there because of their undocumented status, but he made sure to go out there because he knew that staying quiet wasn’t going to do anything,” said Tania Bernal, 27, who recently graduated from Bakersfield College.
After that first detention, Bello became an even more vocal critic of immigration policies, speaking and performing at rallies and school events.
In January, police in Kern County arrested Bello for driving under the influence, county court records show. He was sentenced to five days in jail and required to go through a DUI program, according to a judge’s order, although an ACLU spokesman said the jail time was only to be served if Bello failed to meet other requirements.
Bello also has several “juvenile infractions,” according to paperwork submitted by Homeland Security, the same court order shows, though it is not clear what the infractions are as his juvenile record is now sealed.
But Bello’s representatives argue that the DUI conviction in early 2019 was not what provoked the ICE arrest the following May. The filing says that if ICE were going to arrest him after the DUI, it would have done so, as ICE “receives all fingerprints that local jurisdictions such as Kern County send to the FBI database upon processing an arrest and automatically compares them against DHS’ fingerprint repository.”
ICE also could have detained Bello at his February 2019 immigration hearing in San Francisco but didn’t, the ACLU writes.
Mehlman, however, said that ICE had a right to arrest Bello at any point since he was in the country without a legal status. “There is nothing that says that ICE can’t arrest you merely for your violation of U.S. immigration laws.”
In a written decision issued in July, Judge Sallie Kim said that although the court found ICE’s conduct to be “highly suggestive of retaliatory intent,” “probable cause” clearly existed to arrest Bello — referencing his lack of legal status and DUI conviction — and therefore “a claim for retaliatory arrest is not viable.”
According to the ACLU court filing, Bello also has a petition pending for a U-Visa, which, if granted, allows certain crime victims to pursue lawful status in the United States. Details of Bello’s case for a U-Visa were not available due to privacy concerns, as his visa application is still pending.
Bello’s girlfriend, Edith Mata, 23, visited Bello several times while he was detained, including once with Bello’s mother and Ethan. Bello immediately embraced his child, but a nearby guard quickly told him this wasn’t allowed.
“The baby just wanted his dad,” Mata said. Bello had to cut the visit short.
Though Jose’s lawyer is uncertain about what steps ICE could take next, for now Bello and his family are back together. Seeing his son again, Bello said, restored a sense of permanency that he’d been missing while he was held in the detention center.
“I was just able to hold him for as long as I wanted to,” he said.