A federal judge ordered on Friday that the Ithaca man who has spent nearly six months in jail after being arrested by federal immigration agents in May should not be sentenced to additional time for possessing a fake green card, paving the way for his deportation case to proceed.
José Guzman-Lopez, 32, who was arrested in Ithaca by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in May for entering the country illegally and was later charged with possessing a fake alien registration card, or green card, apologized in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Binghamton on Friday for having the fraudulent document when he was arrested.
“America has been great to me,” he added, “and provided me with opportunities that Mexico could not. I work hard and I love this country.”
Judge Thomas J. McAvoy ruled that the five months and 23 days that Guzman-Lopez has already spent in custody since being arrested was enough of a punishment for having the forged green card in his pocket, a crime to which Guzman-Lopez had admitted. The judge ordered Guzman-Lopez to comply with ICE reporting requirements and sentenced him to three years of supervised release.
McAvoy said Guzman-Lopez is “clearly a good person” who he thinks should be allowed to remain in the country.
“If it were up to me, I’d let you stay here,” the judge said. “That’s not up to me.”
Guzman-Lopez was taken back to Cayuga County Jail after the proceedings, where he has been held for the majority of his time in custody. ICE will soon pick him up and transport him to Batavia Federal Detention Facility in Buffalo, where he will await deportation hearings in Immigration Court.
“Obviously, you’re a good person,” McAvoy said. “I hope some immigration judge gives you some good help to remain or return to this country, if or when you’re deported.”
The conclusion of the federal case against Guzman-Lopez on Friday, which came several months after he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a local court case that had put him on ICE’s radar, clears the way for his case in Immigration Court to proceed, where he will likely attempt to avoid being deported to Mexico.
Several attorneys have been interested in representing Guzman-Lopez in Immigration Court but were not comfortable making any agreement until the case in federal court concluded, said Angela McEnerney, a friend of Guzman-Lopez’s in Ithaca.
Sitting on the steps of the courthouse after the brief sentencing, McEnerney and Alyssa Buda, another friend of Guzman-Lopez’s, said they were frustrated and angry to see their friend, a hard-working restaurant employee, remain in custody with deportation looming over him.
“Every time I see him, I’m really surprised at his good spirits,” Buda said. “He’s always smiling, and it just kills me, honestly. Like, it’s good to see, but also it’s just really disheartening to see that he’s in this state.”
It is unclear how soon the 32-year-old’s case in Immigration Court will commence. Martin Wolfson, the federal public defender who represented Guzman-Lopez in federal court, thanked about a dozen of Guzman-Lopez’s supporters for making their way to Binghamton on Friday. Wolfson will not represent Guzman-Lopez in the immigration case.
Buda and McEnerney, who have visited Guzman-Lopez at Cayuga County Jail and spoken with him on the phone since he was arrested, described him as a caring man who always looks out for others. They said he would walk people home late at night to make sure they were safe and recalled one instance when he waited for a friend to get out of work after he had pulled a double-shift just so they would have someone to vent to about a breakup.
Shortly after he was arrested by ICE, Guzman-Lopez called Buda, she said, and one of his first questions was asking her to make sure she got his keys and could get someone to feed his cat, Tiger.
“All the things that were going on — getting picked up by ICE, not knowing where he was going to go — and his concern was making sure that somebody was going to feed his cat,” Buda said. “He’s just got a big heart.”
Friends, over the last few months, have played heavy metal music for Guzman-Lopez through the phone and mailed him The Dresden Files and martial arts books. When McEnerney visited him in jail, he was the only incarcerated person who was not handcuffed, she said, which she took as a sign that he had been on his best behavior.
He was “all smiles,” she said.
Guzman-Lopez was born to coffee farmers in Juxalja, a town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, his attorney, Wolfson, said in court filings. At nine years old, Guzman-Lopez left his parents to escape the violence against Mayan ethnic groups, like Guzman-Lopez and his family, who are Tzeltal.
He attended a boarding school six hours away on the recommendation of his uncle, who was later killed in the violence, Wolfson said. Guzman-Lopez was shot in two separate instances during random street fights, his lawyer said, but managed to graduate from the boarding school and attended high school and college in Mexico City.
At 21 years old, he made a “treacherous” 2,000-mile trip to the U.S. with a cell phone and worked briefly in New Jersey, his lawyer told the court, before moving to Ithaca about 11 years ago and regularly sending money back to his family.
“This is what led him to break the law, which is totally out of character for him,” Wolfson told the judge on Friday. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Miroslav Lovric, did not address the court.
What put Guzman-Lopez on ICE’s radar was an arrest by Ithaca Police on Halloween night in 2013, when city officers accused him of stabbing a 26-year-old man with a steak knife, an injury that sent the man to a regional trauma center. The unidentified victim said in a statement to police, which was obtained by The Sun under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, that he was fighting with Guzman-Lopez when he was stabbed, but that Guzman-Lopez had not stabbed him.
Guzman-Lopez was bailed out of the Tompkins County Jail within a couple of weeks, in 2013, and local prosecutors never tried him for the assault charge because of a lack of evidence. He recently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in that case, allowing the federal charge for possessing the fake green card to proceed more easily.
With the local and federal cases resolved, Guzman-Lopez now has just the Immigration Court ahead of him.
“He is ready for the battle” of Immigration Court, said Carlos Gutierrez, a health and safety trainer at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center who attended the court proceedings in Binghamton.
Guzman-Lopez’s friends said they hope Ithacans can keep bringing attention to the 32-year-old’s situation and restore the kind of outrage from citizens and local politicians expressed in the day following his arrest, when hundreds gathered on the Ithaca Commons for an anti-ICE rally.
Guzman-Lopez’s hands and legs were cuffed and he wore an orange jumpsuit in court on Friday. As he walked out of the courtroom, he thanked his friends for showing up, and when U.S. Marshals led him into the black SUV, headed back to jail, he blew his friends kisses.