Francisco Rodriguez walked out of the ICE offices in Burlington earlier than expected on Thursday morning, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.
He was wearing the same blue polo shirt he had on when ICE agents locked him up in July. Luckily, his buddy and neighbor Jose brought a jacket, because, baby, it’s cold outside.
Rodriguez and one of his lawyers, John Bennett, embraced and then Jose drove Francisco Rodriguez back to Chelsea, where his family wasn’t expecting him until Friday.
His daughters were at school. And so he went and did what he’d always done, and that’s pick up 10-year-old Mellanie and 5-year-old Jessica when they got out of school.
The girls were surprised to see him.
Then Francisco Rodriguez got to hold his 4-month-old son, Josué, for the first time outside of a jail. Francisco’s mom, Yessi, kept looking to the heavens because all those prayers she had said over the last six months were finally answered.
“We are whole,” Yessi Rodriguez said. “We are a whole family.”
Francisco Rodriguez is the human face of a heartless, cynical, numbers-driven roundup of hard-working undocumented immigrants that the Trump administration has proudly pushed, telling ICE agents to skip focusing their limited resources on criminals when it’s so nice and easy to arrest people like Francisco Rodriguez.
In doing so, federal agents locked up a man who worked as a janitor at MIT and ran a carpet-cleaning business on the side, who paid his taxes. So, in effect, in the name of being tough on immigration, they were going to force US taxpayers to take care of Rodriguez’s three kids who are US citizens.
Rodriguez fled to the United States in 2006 after gang members in his native El Salvador murdered a co-worker. He applied for asylum but was turned down. Still, since 2011, the US government routinely renewed his stay of deportation. Until Donald Trump got elected and ICE began driving up its numbers by locking up undocumented workers instead of undocumented criminals.
Francisco Rodriguez was lucky in that he had a large, dedicated legal team that challenged both his deportation and detention. A couple of weeks ago, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a stay on his deportation and said it would review his asylum request. An appeals court in Boston, meanwhile, ruled this week that he could not be detained more than six months while he was appealing his asylum case.
The government technically could have held him until Jan. 13, so Bennett was pleasantly surprised when a federal prosecutor from the US attorney’s office in Boston called the other day and said the government was not going to fight the appeals court ruling and had approved Rodriguez’s release.
Maybe there’s a heart buried somewhere in that federal bureaucracy after all. Francisco even had some kind things to say about the ICE agents who supervised him.
It’s got to be Christmas.
“He’s not out of the woods yet,” said Bennett, a partner at Goodwin Procter who took the case pro bono, “but at least he can be at home with his family for Christmas.”
Matt Cameron, another lawyer who has fought for Francisco Rodriguez, said his release brought joy but it was bittersweet.
“There are a lot of other hard-working, decent people who are locked up right now who don’t have a dedicated legal team, trying to get the government to do the right thing,” he said. “I’m so happy for Francisco and his family but can’t help but think about the others who won’t be home for Christmas.”
Co-workers from 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union had planned to spend Christmas visiting Francisco at the jail in South Bay. Now he’s telling them he’ll see them soon.
In the meantime, Francisco Rodriguez wants to spend time with his family and whisper Christmas songs to Josué.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.