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BC student's arrest by ICE called 'highly suggestive' of retaliation by federal judge

Jose Bellow released from ICE custody (copy)

In this file photo, Jose Bello hugs his attorney, Win Eaton, after being released from federal custody in August 2018.

Bakersfield College student Jose Bello will remain in custody after a federal judge denied a motion by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California on Tuesday.

However, the judge called the actions of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who arrested Bello hours after he read a poem against the agency at a public forum, “highly suggestive of retaliatory intent.”

The ACLU had filed a court order on Bello’s behalf alleging his First Amendment rights had been violated by the arrest, and that a $50,000 bail had been set unreasonably high.

A drunken driving charge played a crucial role in the judge’s ruling, effectively nullifying the ACLU’s arguments.

Bello pleaded no contest to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol in January and was sentenced to three years' probation. The judge said that the ACLU had not demonstrated that ICE would not have arrested Bello even if he had not read his poem.

“ICE had an objectively reasonable legal justification to re-arrest (Bello),” Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim wrote in the order denying the ACLU’s motion.

Kim concurred with the ACLU that the timing of the arrest was suspicious, and the ACLU said the agency's actions could have implications beyond Bello’s case.

“ICE’s chilling claim is that it may retaliate against political speakers like Jose Bello whenever it can point to an additional reason to justify its actions,” said ACLU staff attorney Jordan Wells. “If that were the law, ICE would have a license to punish its critics. Contrary to ICE’s view, the First Amendment prohibits such blatant censorship.”

The ACLU plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

ICE declined to comment.

The alleged violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, occurred after Bello read a poem titled “Dear America” at a forum on ICE’s involvement with local law enforcement held at the chambers of the Kern County Board of Supervisors in May.

“Y’all can try to justify your actions, try to make excuses,” Bello said at the forum, according to a transcript of the poem. “The bottom line is that, at the end, the people always triumph and the government loses.”

Thirty-six hours after Bello read the poem, ICE agents appeared at his home at 6:30 a.m. to make an arrest.

It was Bello’s second time being taken into ICE custody.

In May 2018, ICE arrested Bello and his brother, Oscar Bello-Reyes, claiming both were members of a local gang with criminal convictions for violent offenses that had occurred while they were juveniles.

Through his lawyer at the time, Bello denied the allegations, saying ICE had confused him for somebody else with the same name.

Some at BC rallied to Bello’s aid, raising $10,000 for his bond. Bello was released on bail in August and continued studying at the community college.

His friends say he was a semester away from graduating when he was re-arrested.

According to court documents, Bello entered the U.S. in 2000, when he was 3 years old. He is now 22, and works as a full-time farmworker along with his studies at BC, the documents say.

He has a 1-year-old son who is an American citizen.

ICE provided a “long list” of juvenile infractions committed by Bello, the judge wrote in her order. However, Bello’s juvenile record was sealed in June 2018.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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