Portrait of an Immigrant Detainee as a Young Man

Meet New York bike-scene fixture Pablo Airaldi. He made friends with everyone—except ICE officials.

Here’s what Pablo Daniel Airaldi is like in person. He’s terminally scruffy and lean, a dynamic presence emanating restless energy, even from behind bulletproof glass. He’s gonzo in his approach to art, writing, and life, the sort of self-sufficient itinerant who will city-hop on a whim as long as there’s an available couch—and why not, if you can? Even his absence is palpable: At this year’s Bike Kill, a day-long debauch of scum-punk hedonism and mutant-bike injury held in Bed-Stuy, Pablo’s artist friend Goya drew a lifesize likeness of his fallen comrade. “They put me on a stick and paraded me around Bike Kill and got really fucking drunk with me,” Pablo says now, cracking up at the thought. “Since I wasn’t able to be there, they got trashed with a cardboard cutout of me.”

Pablo is, by all accounts, a staggeringly good time. “How would I describe him?” says old friend Ian Uriel Girdley, who has contacted two senators, a Midwestern governor, and the President of the United States on Pablo’s behalf. “He’s the guy who’d say, ‘Drink up, bitches!’ ”

Pablo also happens to be an immigrant. But he didn’t sprint across a highway to chase the American Dream, nor did a coyote kingpin smuggle him into the Land of the Free. As a kid, he traveled to the Home of the Brave on a plane “on the arm of a couple of sweet flight attendants.” He isn’t a devoted father of three who, after serving a decade for a drug charge, reinvented himself as a paragon of the church, or some abhorrent undocumented “illegal” who’s been undercutting union jobs. He is just like half a million other young transplants in this town, here to chase dreams, dive into extremes, and live novels. He just happens to be one who, because of his birthplace, can be lawfully kidnapped at any moment. Now Pablo is living a Kafka novel: He is in jail for something he didn’t have to go to jail for in the first place.

Pablo became a legal permanent resident of the United States of America at age nine in April 1992. His mother married into this country after a year-long romance that, in her son’s own words, “ping-ponged between the U.S. and Uruguay.” Her new husband was a conservative ex-Marine, a “country boy from a small town,” who brought his new wife and stepson to Indianapolis while operating a stump-removal business out of Atlanta. “He owned two trucks, a Cadillac, and his own townhouse, and my mother believed he would give both of us a better life,” Pablo writes in a letter dated November 16, 2010. But on a business trip with the family in tow, “my stepfather began showing his true nature. I was nine then and still spoke to my mother in Spanish often. One day he got pissed off at me for one thing or another and told both of us that we were not allowed to speak ‘that language’ in the house anymore.” (“He was a piece of work, that guy,” confirms Bradd Collins, one of Pablo’s closest friends during that time.) To this day, Pablo can’t speak Spanish.

“I came up here and was robbed of my language,” Pablo now laments from his New Jersey jail pay phone, more articulate in English than most native-born Americans. “My life is this whole ridiculous intertwined tale of American culture clashing with old culture. What was left was me, pouring out of the cracks of this cultural collision. It’s hard for me to explain all at once, but I’ve been writing about it since I was 13.”

The relationship between Pablo and his stepfather, who already had sons, never coalesced. By the time Pablo was 15, he dropped out of school and left what he now calls “kind of an abusive home” with a mutual understanding that his departure was for the best. The teenager floated around Indianapolis, crashing on friends’ couches, working in a factory, skateboarding, and briefly renting an apartment with a friend of a friend who, Pablo says, turned out to be a 20-year-old neo-Nazi ex-con from California. That living situation was also less than ideal. “I decided I’d rather be homeless than live with him, so I just kind of lived out of my car for 10 or 11 months.”

Then Pablo turned 18. A legal resident can’t apply for U.S. citizenship before this benchmark birthday, and so it was wholly unfortunate that only a month after he was eligible, he got arrested. His friend stole a car, Pablo maintains to this day, stripped the vehicle for parts, and offered him $100 to help transport the stuff. “I was homeless, out of a job, and I was just some skate-rat,” he explains. “I needed the money, so I went and picked up him and his shit.” And then they both got caught.

Along with requirements like basic reading, writing, and speaking proficiency in English, another qualification for American citizenship is proof of that eternally subjective “good moral character.” Felons aren’t often considered such moral paragons, but Pablo says he didn’t realize this when, on the advice of the harried public defender in Indiana, he pled guilty to a felony charge in order to avoid jail time. (“I was too poor to afford a Snickers bar, let alone a criminal attorney,” he has written about the incident.) Also during this process, Pablo insists that no one told him that a conviction like this could adversely affect his current immigration status—according to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (blame Bill Clinton), convictions that could lead to a sentence of a year or more make their offenders eligible for deportation.

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