Portrait of an Immigrant Detainee as a Young Man


It is a rare individual who, upon being jailed for a 10-year-old indiscretion that he had already paid for, has friends help contribute to his legal fees by playfully stripping. Pablo Airaldi is that kind of person.

So here we are on a mid-November Friday at the Production Lounge, a weirdly contrived Greenpoint venue chosen for its flexibility to host a community fundraiser on short notice rather than its spectacularly gaudy low-rent Planet Hollywood posture. Onstage, Babes on Bikes are disrobing coquettishly, one of five acts donating their talents for this $10-a-head event to benefit Pablo, who is indefinitely detained in New Jersey’s Hudson County jail. Earlier this evening, a jumble of bands and a fire dancer regaled the crowd of 200 or so. But the local burlesque collective could arguably be called the main attraction, as everyone left is glued to the spectacle. Aided by an accordion player and an MC aping Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher (perhaps unintentionally), the troupe’s routines are bike-fetish camp. For example, one performer, an inked vixen with Bettie Page bangs who goes by Heather Loop, ends a number by peeling down to pinstriped lingerie and twirling a fringed bike-wheel parasol. Another sketch concludes with a barefoot woman in white underwear straddling, rather purposefully, a cycle saddle.

Pablo Airaldi, you see, is something of a fixture in New York’s bike community. The 28-year-old has toiled intermittently as a messenger for more than five years, organized the now-defunct Kid Robot–sponsored team Six Racing, run with the Cutthroats Bike Club, spoken to the press about urban-cycling obstacle-course races called Alleycats, and even once modeled for a New York Times’ Styles section after gear-testing “cycling-specific knickers.” Until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) snatched him on October 13, the Bed-Stuy resident was managing Greenpoint Bikes, a fledgling shop docked nearby on Manhattan Avenue. And so most of the people here tonight, and many of those who have gotten to know Pablo over the few years, know him from his time whipping around streets.

What those same people didn’t know until recently—even a couple Pablo considered his very best friends—was that he could disappear at any moment. Born in Uruguay and brought to America by his mother as a child, he was a legal permanent resident, but he got caught transporting stolen car parts as a teenager, and at the behest of a harried public defender in Indiana, pled guilty to a felony in order to avoid jail time. The result: a suspended sentence of 545 days. Such a conviction is a deportable offense according to current immigration law, and so even though Pablo doesn’t speak Spanish anymore, doesn’t have family in his native land, and is by all accounts a legitimate product of the American system, he could be shipped back to South America at any point.

But because he’s such a terrifically authentic character who makes friends easily, Pablo has an astonishing network of pals working on his behalf around the country—organizing fundraisers, nagging politicians, retaining legal counsel, feverishly digging around the Internet for guidance, and even stripping. In the two and a half months since ICE stole him, there have been bike races for Pablo in Minneapolis and Switzerland, a benefit in his high school hometown of Indianapolis, and a poetry/music/magician showcase in Kentucky. And the grand total just from tonight’s event, organized by two New York friends, Kathleen Hennerty and Will Bowers, will come to $1,333.

Asked by the Voice earlier in the day—via a jail-commissary phone card that costs 25 cents a minute (another excessive financial drain from his indeterminate detention)—what message he’d want relayed to his friends at the benefit, Pablo bids, “Have fun. Don’t stress too hard. We can only do just so much, and I’m just thankful about anything that’s done right now.” But what if he could be there tonight, drinking whiskey and talking shit, what would he say? “Make sure I don’t wake up in the gutter?” He laughs. “Or how about, ‘If you see me in the street, please carry me home!’ ”

By home, he means Bed-Stuy, not Uruguay.

Here’s what Pablo Daniel Airaldi is like on paper. Birth date: October 17, 1982. Birthplace: Montevideo, Uruguay. Mother’s maiden name: Perez. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Chestnut (“castaño” on his passport). Marital status: Single. Education level: Some school. Employment history: Factory worker, bike messenger, bike-shop manager. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Status: In custody. Case number: 240750.

Here is what Pablo is like on social media. On Facebook, he has 693 friends, identifies his religious views as “faith saves man, religions kill him,” and publicly testifies to liking the stuff-white-people-like NPR staple This American Life, shit-eating punk icon GG Allin, and the FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He has also posted a scan of his Uruguayan passport with the request, “Steal my identity . . . please.” (The certificate is dated March 17, 2006, and expires, ominously, on March 17, 2011.) Pablo’s not on Twitter. But on his lingering MySpace profile, the Libra quotes a James Joyce passage from Ulysses at length, teases about his obsession with the Kevin Bacon cycling film Quicksilver (“i like to watch quicksilver every night before i go to sleep, and once again when i wake up, and whenever i have a long break for lunch and also while i sleep”), and lists his occupation as “bike.”

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.

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.”

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, 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.

Pablo’s bike is like a phantom limb. You can tell he has an itch. He talks, at length, about the freedom a bicycle represents. “It’s one of those icons that is very childlike and in that way, represents a lot of things we have lost in this society,” he will say during a later phone call, veering off on an unwieldy tangent about how we grow up too quickly and this is one of the reasons teenage pregnancy and drug abuse have been epidemic. But now the first thing he wants to do when he gets out of here is ride for, like, 11 hours straight.

He talks about all the support from his friends. The benefits from Indiana to Switzerland, the visits, the letters. He even got mail from a 15-year-old in California who said she’d heard about his situation on the Internet and was praying for him. The envelope said “UNICORN POWER.” “It’s weird,” he says. “I never thought I did anything to deserve this.”

He talks about his mom. He calls her his rock, “the most supportive and strong woman I’ve ever met in my life.” They’re still in touch and talk nearly every other day. She’s worried about him, of course, but has grown accustomed to her son’s stubborn independence. “After the first couple of times that I told her I slept under a bridge, she was OK with it,” he explains later. “I was like, ‘It’s OK, mom! I had my knife when the bum came up to me, it’s cool.’ ”

She has since divorced the ex-Marine, who blames Pablo for their split. “I don’t hate him,” Pablo says unprovoked about someone he hasn’t spoken to in nine years. “He’s really the only father figure I ever had.” His eyes get glassy.

After approximately 30 minutes of this discourse—detainee visits are limited to a total of half an hour a day—one of the two uniformed guards behind the glass hands a white piece of paper to Pablo. It’s time to put down the phone.

The first place Pablo ever felt a sense of community was in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town 50 miles south of Indianapolis. With cheap rents and a median age of 23, the city fostered a rich DIY culture. One such bastion was “The Awesome Block,” a stretch of community-minded houses where intuitive kids lived and worked on their own terms, dumpster-diving for resources, throwing shows in each other’s basements. (Noise goliaths Lightning Bolt, harp nymphet Joanna Newsom, and electro-spazz ringmaster Dan Deacon early on all played there.) At the Awesome Block, the couches were cots, the local soup kitchen was its cafeteria, and Pablo rented a sunroom there for $75 a month. The cost was so cheap that he got by delivering sandwiches, busking outside a coffee shop, and performing at poetry slams. (In 2005, the Bloomington Alternative described Pablo’s public reading style as “frantic thousandthoughtspersecond.”

It was an active life, not a passive one. “Bloomington for young artistic types wasn’t the kind of place you just sat at home and did nothing,” recalls Pablo’s friend Ian, who became acquainted with him through the poetry scene there. “You went out and talked to people, you listened to people play guitars, you shared poetry, you talked about philosophy, you chased girls, whatever. You were downtown, out at the park, out at a coffee shop, out a bar, someone else’s house.”

Bloomington was also the setting for the Oscar-winning film Breaking Away. A 1979 coming-of-age story about a working-class protagonist obsessed with bike racing, the movie arcs with the Little 500, an actual cycling competition held annually at Indiana University. This sort of regional pop-sports history, along with a rich sustainable-living community, fostered the Bloomington Bike Community Project, a nonprofit with ideals similar to Time’s Up in New York City. “That’s where I fell in love with cycling,” he has written. “There I learned to be completely independent by way of an amazing machine called a bicycle.”

Ever since then, the bicycle has been a tool, a livelihood, a discount, an identity. It’s the reason that, like a lot of things in his life, Pablo’s work history isn’t traditional, either.

For more than four years, he worked intermittently for New York–based Elite Couriers—for a bike messenger, that’s a lifetime. “Most people don’t really stick with it more than six months. It’s an industry with a really high turnover,” says Kevin “Squid” Bolger, president of the New York Bike Messenger Foundation, who has been riding full-time since 1992. “It’s a job that a lot of people do for a while—it looks fun—but after a while, the really hard reality is that it’s really hard work and it’s not great pay.” He describes the bike-messenger community as “hobo college.”

With that sort of empirical education, Pablo didn’t think twice when, after moving to Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis, he tried to go to Canada for a bike race in 2008 and only brought his passport. “I almost puked in the immigration office across the border when they told me I was about to get arrested,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Wha-wha-what?’” Eight years after his arrest in Indiana, he had unknowingly brought his immigration status to the Department of Homeland Security’s attention. Court dates ensued, and so did four months’ detention in 2009 (where “I was losing my fucking mind”), and a bond release, which was later reversed as a judge’s mistake.

Then in 2010, everything started going well. Pablo knew there was a problem.

In the traditionally Polish area of Greenpoint, there is also a lively cast of diverse neighborhood characters that has sprung up along the northern end of the area’s main strip, Manhattan Avenue. Like Victor, a/k/a the “Mayor of Greenpoint,” a Puerto Rican gentleman who is block-famous for wielding a drain snake and being the first person bodega owners yell for when their sinks choke. Or Christina Mattus, the 30-year-old Caucasian Long Island–raised proprietor of the nascent Usha Veda Yoga studio. Or George Zeigler, a/k/a “Ziiggie,” a 56-year-old half-black/half-Jewish subway musician whose guitar is his bank account and who currently sleeps in a tent.

Instead of ignoring such colorful personalities, as is so often the case when shithead twentysomethings stick their buffalo-plaid flags into gradually gentrifying areas and play tourist pioneer, Pablo very quickly became a spectacular part of the ensemble. Last summer, a local business owner brought him to open the neighborhood’s first cycling store, Greenpoint Bikes, and he worked 24 days straight setting up the shop, sometimes so late he would sleep there. Pablo spent his breaks palling around with his new neighbors, putting Ziiggie to work in the shop a few times and once letting Victor, who needed money, pawn his bike at no interest until he could afford to buy it back.

In turn, the local characters welcomed him. “Right away, it was like we had known each other forever,” Ziiggie explains recently at Manhattan Avenue’s Acapulco restaurant, over French fries and a pint of blackberry-flavored brandy he had smuggled in his coat. “If he had tits, I’d fuck him.”

“They knew I wasn’t trying to change the neighborhood, but to help it out,” Pablo offers. “I didn’t want commerce to come in and change the whole face and feel.”

Pablo says he had “a premonition” something would go wrong on October 13, which was in every other respect just a routine court check-in. Everything in his life was just going too right. “I was like, ‘Something’s gonna fuck up. My love life is amazing, my friends are fantastic, everything was perfect.’ This has never been my life, ever. I’ve always had to struggle somehow. I’m not comfortable being comfortable,” he says solemnly. “With the shop, I felt for the first time I was finally really able to make an impact—just from simply continuing my beliefs, without having to compromise. With the shop, I was immediately affecting things. I was watching them change for the better, in front of me, right in the community. It was exciting.”

So on October 13, Pablo chose his outfit deliberately. Black dress shirt. Patchwork pants. Most crucial of all, white underwear—go into custody wearing anything else and you run the risk of your drawers being confiscated, a threat he learned the hard way. (“The last time I got taken in, I went without underwear for a month and a half. They called me ‘raw squirrel’ every time I tried to do laundry: I had to wrap something around my waist and walk around for an hour.”) He also, on a whim from the federal building’s waiting room, texted his best friend, Becky, and asked her to come get an extra key to his bike lock. “My bike is worth $4,000—custom Italian track bike—and I was like, ‘If I’m gone, please take my bike.’ ”

And then he was gone. ICE picked him up with no explanation, after his appointment with the judge.

“I was kind of devastated,” remembers Yatika Starr Fields, an artist friend who painted a mural inside Greenpoint Bikes, about when he heard ICE took Pablo. “It was just sad. I know personally how he felt and what he was working on, and that his dreams were happening. He was on a roll right now—and this happens. He was doing good stuff and then he gets shat on.”

His Greenpoint friends got active quickly, circulating petitions around the neighborhood, orchestrating the Production Lounge benefit, and scribbling letters to the judge who’d be hearing his case. “I am sad for the community to have one less person who really cared and wasn’t too afraid or too lazy to show it,” wrote Christina Mattus in an open letter posted to the neighborhood blog New York Shitty.

“I live in Greenpoint, I work in Greenpoint, I write a blog that is primarily focused on Greenpoint—I’m in a position to judge,” says “Miss Heather” Letzkus, the human behind New York Shitty. “Pablo has proven to be civic-minded. He is an immensely popular person here. He has also managed to do this is in a very short period of time.”

Miss Heather was one of the 22 supporters (including Ziiggie) who showed up in court for Pablo’s first perfunctory hearing in custody, held at 201 Varick Street on November 29. Recounting the experience, she posts, “The judge presiding over Pablo’s case opined (while thumbing a rather thick stack of letters advocating that Mr. Airaldi be allowed to stay in our fair community/country) that he was happy that everyone who sent in letters did not show up. If I had to hazard to guess: 1) He was impressed! 2) 201 Varick Street, Room 1140 was probably host to more tattoos and piercings this morning than the previous 364 mornings combined!”

“He does more for the community than I do, and I was born here!” says Becky Wise, the Bed-Stuy messenger and close friend who collected Pablo’s bike, which she’s now babysitting. “Could I give up my citizenship and get deported somewhere so that he can stay?”

Ziiggie is particularly devastated by Pablo’s absence. “I miss him so much I can’t stand it,” he croaks. He even has a FREE PABLO sticker on his guitar. “What’s happening to Pablo, it makes no sense. It’s so wrong. It’s just so totally illogical and irrational. You can’t send a cat back to a country he don’t know nothing about! He can’t even speak the fucking language! What the fuck are they doing?”

Whatever they are doing, here are Pablo’s two most viable options to handle it: He can fight to get his original sentence amended to less than a year—with all the money raised, his friends have been able to hire New York immigration lawyer Stan Weber, who explains this is Pablo’s best bet. He can also, at any single moment, surrender, sign the paperwork, and return to a country where he hasn’t been in 20 years, doesn’t know anyone, and doesn’t speak the language. He says he has definitely considered that last option “many times.” But hearing about everything that’s going on the outside, he has resigned himself to the possibility that there’s something greater at stake here.

“Honestly, at this point, even with my friends trying as hard as they can, if I get deported, least a lot of people will understand that this is happening all over the place,” he explained during our first phone conversation, back in November. “Not just people out in Arizona or people hopping a fence down from Mexico. It’s happening to them as well—wrongfully so, in many cases. But it’s happening all over, even on your block.”