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.

This isn’t just Pablo’s problem, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of aliens whose plights resemble his predicament. José Padilla, a Vietnam War vet and a legal resident from Honduras for more than 40 years, brought such a case before the Supreme Court in 2009, alleging that he only pled guilty to drug-distribution charges in Kentucky because his lawyer never warned him that such a conviction could be cause for deportation. On March 31, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, determining “the lawyer for an alien charged with a crime has a constitutional obligation to tell the client that a guilty plea carries a risk that he will be deported.”

Even more confusing, immigration law doesn’t treat probation any differently from jail time served, so when the Indiana judge gave Pablo a suspended sentence of 545 days, even though the decision didn’t require imprisonment, it still meant he could be detained at any moment.

For his part, Pablo wouldn’t know that his immigration status was in danger until he tried to enter Canada in 2008. In the meantime, he just wanted to get out of Indianapolis. “I finished my legal obligations,” he recalls, “and got the hell out of that godforsaken city.”

Bloomington, Indiana, is "where I fell in love with cycling."
Ed Glazar
Bloomington, Indiana, is "where I fell in love with cycling."

Four days before Christmas, Pablo calls, all riled up, after “probably the most exciting lockdown—the funniest, at least—I’ve ever been through.” He’s fuming about how one of the jail guards confiscated a milk carton from his bunk, then proceeded to open it in front of Pablo and drink it, out of spite. Which then led to a volley of insults among the 60-something detainees. The officer called somebody a “fucking illegal,” and Pablo angrily mouthed off, saying, I may be in jail now, but you’re gonna be fat, ugly, stupid, and stuck here for the rest of your life. “There was one point,” he says, “I was laughing so hard at him, the laughing was contagious, and all four rows of bunks were laughing at the top of their lungs.” When the guard finally left, the entire locked-down wing clapped and dramatically blew kisses.

The previous week at Hudson County, Pablo was far calmer. Sitting behind a bulletproof glass partition in visitation booth 21, a dismal concrete stall where communication is filtered through a phone receiver (just like in the movies!), he welcomes his visitor with a fist-bump against the glass. On a weekday, it’s the closest he can come to a handshake. (Detainees are allowed “contact visits” only once a week, on Saturday afternoons.) It’s bumblingly reciprocated, and Pablo cracks up at the overwhelmed holy-shit-this-is-surreal expression of the “jail virgin” sitting across the glass from him—the third person he’s deflowered in this way, so far.

Pablo seems brawnier than he does in his Facebook photos. This is a consequence of how he’s been dividing up what he calls a “homogeneous cycle of never-ending days.” Among sleep, meals, phone calls, and his bunkmates’ nocturnal “fart symphonies” (“I can even tell who’s farting at what time, it’s so bad”), he has been playing chess with himself, studying calculus, writing letters (a friend has been posting them at dearlydeported.blogspot.com), reading dense literature, and, most conspicuously, working out. A lot. Two and a half hours, earlier today. “I’m getting buff,” he beams, noting that he’s gained 10 pounds since he was detained in October.

Immigrants have been held at Hudson County Correctional Center—a PATH train and a dreary bus ride from Manhattan—since March 2010. Previously, New York City’s 300-plus detainees had been kept on the fourth floor of the Varick Street federal office building. But officials deemed this option cheaper ($111 a day per detainee here, $253 there) and more humane (here, there’s fresh-air recreation). That said, there’s still a monstrous bramble of razor wire outside. And being stuck in federal purgatory as a “detainee” is, in its own specific way, psychologically taxing. As Pablo has written, “At least a prisoner knows when he is being released.”

But today, on Thursday, December 16, the outside world has injected Pablo with a frisson of hope. “I just heard some good news,” he explodes. He had just learned that Ian, his poet friend from Indiana, actually heard from one of the politician’s offices he’d contacted: an immigration specialist working for Republican senator Dick Lugar, asking for a conference call with Pablo’s lawyer. There’s also talk out there that the original prosecuting attorney in Pablo’s 2000 charge is willing to testify on his behalf. It’s all, of course, tentative, speculative, perhaps even imaginary. But at this point, so is everything outside these walls.

Everything outside these walls is what Pablo dreams about at night. He dreams about the Chicken Hut, his Bed-Stuy bike-community home—the setting for more than a couple of legendary parties and shows. He dreams about sex. (“A lot. About sex. A lot,” he reiterates. “I’m totally pitched when I wake up. In a white sheet, I look like I’m going camping. Takes a while before I get down to go get breakfast.”) And he dreams about riding his bike in the city.

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