A college student says ICE arrested him in retaliation for reading a poem about America

By Charles Davis

Jose Bello came to the United States when he was three years old — and fewer than two days after speaking out against the Trump administration's immigration policies, the college student was arrested at his home in Southern California and slated for deportation.

On Tuesday, Bello's lawyers will argue before a US federal court that he was targeted for his activism and that his detention violates the right to free speech.

In 2019, Bello attended a meeting of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, where during a public comment session he read a poem, "Dear America," defending the rights of immigrants and condemning the federal government's crackdown on the foreign-born.

"We know who you are and what you're about," one agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Bello the morning he was arrested, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. ICE set bail at $50,000 — more than twice Bello's income as a farm worker.

In court, ICE has argued that it has a right to detain Bello, regardless of what actually sparked his arrest, because the then-22-year-old had a prior conviction for driving under the influence. And that argument has, thus far, prevailed in the US justice system, where agents of the state have been granted de facto immunity for suspected retaliatory arrests provided there is "probable cause" for the detention.

Tuesday's hearing will be before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In a brief filed with the court, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union say the court should reverse an earlier judgment upholding the arrest and reject "ICE's dangerous position as anathema to the First Amendment protection against retaliation for speech."

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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