The skies were gray and it smelled like rain Thursday afternoon when Francisco Rodriguez, a 43-year-old janitor at MIT, linked arms with his friends and supporters and walked up to the front door of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Burlington.
A few dozen people showed up to let their government know they didn’t want Francisco Rodriguez deported back to his native El Salvador. They sang songs and said prayers and cheered Rodriguez as he walked inside to plead his case.
Rodriguez, his lawyers Matt Cameron and John Bennett, and Erica Rasquinha, a legal intern and Cameron’s assistant, went through the metal detectors and headed for the waiting room.
The door to conference rooms in a secure part of the first floor opened, and an ICE agent stood there and said, “Francisco,” and motioned for him to come in.
Cameron asked me to come along as an observer, but the ICE agents were having none of it. So I sat in the waiting room with Francisco’s mother, Jesus Guardado. She is a legal US resident and was planning to sponsor Francisco for a green card after she gets her citizenship next year. As we sat and waited, her phone kept ringing.
“I’m so worried,” she said, almost to herself.
A few minutes later, the door to the inner offices opened and out walked the lawyers and the legal intern.
Francisco Rodriguez was not with them.
Erica Rasquinha, a law student at Northeastern, came over to Jesus Guardado and knelt before her and put a hand on the old woman’s shoulder and said in Spanish, “They took him.”
Jesus Guardado’s eyes filled and her shoulders heaved and Rasquinha comforted her as best she could.
Matt Cameron stood on the other side of the room, shaking his head. All the thousands of people at MIT and beyond who signed a petition, asking that Francisco Rodriguez be allowed to stay, the letter of support from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Congressman Mike Capuano, all the people outside — it all meant nothing. Actually, maybe it did mean something.
“This is what you get when you speak out,” Cameron said. “If you speak up, you get picked up. I think they’re trying to make an example out of him. This is the new ICE. This is a system that has been stripped of all humanity and discretion.”
Cameron said there was little discussion. He said the ICE agents appeared to have had their minds made up to take Francisco into custody from the get-go, and that the meeting was a mere formality.
Bennett said he was going to file something in federal court to get a judge to halt the deportation. Cameron said he was going to try to reopen the case.
Cameron demanded to see a supervisor. A woman came out and heard him out.
“Where is the discretion?” Cameron asked. “If not in this case, then what case?”
“There is still discretion,” the supervisor replied.
It all went nowhere.
Matt Cameron walked over and sat down next to Francisco Rodriguez’s mother and put his hand over his heart and told her in Spanish that he was not giving up.
Cameron texted Roxana Rivera, the vice president of Rodriguez’s union, SEIU Local 32BJ, who was outside with the others waiting for news. Rivera broke the news to the crestfallen crowd.
“How does taking a good, hard-working man away from his wife and children make this a better country?” Roxana Rivera asked, and there was no answer.
Francisco Rodriguez fled his native El Salvador after a colleague at his engineering firm was murdered by gangsters and he feared he’d be next. He came to Boston in 2007 and applied for asylum. That application was turned down in 2009, and his appeal was denied in 2011. But federal authorities recognized his case was not entirely without merit, so every year since then he had been granted a stay of removal.
In the meantime, Rodriguez got a job as a janitor at MIT, got married, had two kids, and has another on the way. He started a business on the side, cleaning carpets when he wasn’t pushing a broom at MIT. He became an active member of his church, his kids’ school in Chelsea, in the wider Chelsea community.
That he became a gainfully employed, tax-paying, job-creating immigrant was the very thing that ensured that every year the US government would agree to stay his deportation.
But that changed when the Trump administration came in and signaled it wanted to step up the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and not just criminals.
Last month, when Francisco Rodriguez showed up for his regular check-in meeting at the ICE offices in Burlington to make his case for renewing the stay of removal, he was initially told to return in December. But a few hours later his lawyer got a call from ICE, saying that Rodriguez needed to return this month, on Thursday, and that he should have his travel documents and an airline ticket to El Salvador.
Francisco Rodriguez left his home in Chelsea on Thursday morning knowing that he might be taken into custody, that the kisses he gave 10-year-old Melanie and 5-year-old Jessica would be the last he gave them for a long time. He knew that his wife, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy, might be in the delivery room without him.
But before he walked into the ICE offices, he told me he had faith, too. He believed in the goodness of America.
“This is a great country,” he said.
That great country has shed any pretense of prioritizing the deportation of bad hombres. That great country is throwing out the good hombres like Francisco Rodriguez because they’re much easier to get than the bad hombres. That great country is tearing a family apart, cruelly, needlessly.
Jesus Guardado stopped crying and stepped out of the ICE building.
It was July 13 and the temperature hovered around 60. But it felt much colder.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org