A month ago, a jury found Ricardo Muñiz innocent of assaulting a 65-year-old man during a fight outside a Brooklyn bar in July 2009. The dispute began when two men harassed Muñiz and a friend of his with homophobic epithets in the bar, according to published reports.
Yet in spite being cleared of all criminal charges, it appeared as if Muñiz would remain behind bars.
During his pre-trial detention, Muñiz, 25, became ensnared in the Rikers Island Criminal Alien Program, which identifies and reports undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Immigrant advocacy groups Make The Road New York and the Cardozo Law Clinic collected letters to ICE on Muñiz’s behalf from coworkers and social organizations requesting his release. The advocacy proved successful and Muñiz was released two days after his acquittal, following 20 months of detention at Rikers.
Make The Road co-executive director Andrew Friedman says Muñiz’s release from his immigration hold was quite unusual, even though he was found innocent.
“The city’s own numbers show that about half the people they detain for the Feds, and help the Feds deport, actually are innocent of the charges that bring them to Rikers in the first place and have no prior record,” said Friedman.
Make the Road, other advocacy groups and some City Council members have been lobbying Mayor Bloomberg to end cooperative agreements between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
It’s not clear why exactly Muñiz was freed after acquittal while many others immigrants are kept in deportation proceedings after entering the Criminal Alien Program. It’s also still unknown whether Muñiz will be allowed to remain here legally, says Karina Claudio, Meet The Road’s LGBT Justice group organizer.
“It doesn’t mean that he has residency or that he’s going to stay in this country for sure yet, but at least he’s doing all of this process from home, which is what we wanted,” explained Claudio. “It’s a really great victory to just have him be home with his family while he’s going through this process.”
Since his release, Muñiz says its been a slow and difficult adjustment to normalcy and he has had nightmares.
“I’ve woken up frightened thinking I’m still inside that place,” he said in Spanish.
Muñiz said prison was a horrible experience because he felt discriminated against by inmates and the security guards due to his sexuality.
“The inmates stole my commissary and several times tried to beat me up because I was gay,” he said.
Muñiz said he received dirty looks, was ignored, and at times laughed at by the guards whenever he attempted to report the other inmates.
Muñiz’s mother Jorgelina Aguirre said she felt powerless while her son was held at Rikers. Ironically, he was suffering at the prison, even though he was the victim of the crime that landed him there.
“I felt like I was tied, like my hands were tied and I didn’t know what to do,” she said in Spanish.
For both Aguirre and Muñiz, the homophobia and discrimination Muñiz experienced in the U.S. was a painful reminder of why they left their town Valle de Chalco, in the outskirts of Mexico City.
About seven years ago, Muñiz and his family came to New York fleeing homophobia in their native country.
“Many of us come to the United States because of a dream or a goal,” explained Muñiz. “Many come to work. In my case, I came to find an opportunity to have a life, to live, to be happy. To have an opportunity to be myself.”
The then 17-year-old Muñiz was bullied and verbally-abused on a regular basis and was almost run over once. A week before he left for the U.S., he was beaten by four men and nearly killed.
Muñiz said he doesn’t know when his immigration hearing will take place or what will happen next, but he does know he doesn’t want to return to Mexico and the abuse he endured there.
“I hope there will be justice and I’ll be able to stay here.”