(Photos by Ben Toren)

After living undocumented in New York City since they were two years old, Juan Esteban Barreto and his twin sister Daniela both applied for protection under the DACA act. Daniela was approved, but Juan was not so lucky. He was denied, his family believes, because he shoplifted from a bodega when he was 17. If Juan is deported, a bottle of soda will have sent the twins on completely different life trajectories.

On Tuesday morning, a crowd of 30 people gathered outside the Varick Street Immigration Court to lobby for the release of Juan, who was arrested on December 26, 2017 and is now in ICE custody. His family said it took them days to find out he was being held at Hudson County Correctional Facility, in New Jersey. Juan is now in danger of being deported to Colombia, the birth country he hasn’t been back to since he moved to Queens at the age of two. 

Nearly two months after his arrest, Juan’s hearing was finally ready to proceed this past Tuesday morning, only to be delayed further when the judge asked Juan’s lawyer for more paperwork. The hearing took place on the same day the Supreme Court declined to take up a key DACA case. The program, designed to prevent the deportation of young people whose parents brought them illegally to the U.S., will stay in place until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rules on it, likely in June or July. The Supreme Court decision was a victory for those like Juan’s sister, who were able to actually attain DACA status.

Juan’s parents, who are also undocumented, have not been able to visit their son in jail for fear of being detained, said Juan’s cousin-in-law, Leah Golubchick, who directed protesters. The court hearing was the first time his mother had seen him since he had been arrested. Juan entered the U.S. legally in March 2000 on a nonimmigrant visa but failed to depart when it expired.  

“If everyone who did something dumb when they were a teenager were deported, there wouldn’t be a lot of people left,” Golubchick said outside of his court hearing. Her husband Sebastian, Juan’s cousin, was also undocumented before getting a masters degree at Princeton and becoming an anthropologist. “It shows that being undocumented doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer,” said Leah.

Leah says Juan is a kind young man with a strong family ethic, the type of kid who was happy to give up his room for visiting aunties and uncles. She recounted how, as a child, Juan was the ring bearer at her wedding. Mistaking his title for ring burier, he kept asking her, “But where do I bury it, Leah?”

Before being detained, Juan had worked his way up from dishwasher to busboy at a local restaurant; his dream was to go to college to study engineering. While Juan awaits his fate, his sister Daniela is working at a dog spa, fulfilling her love of tending to animals. Her petition calling for her brother to be freed has collected nearly 11,000 signatures. “He’s shared with me how hard it is to endure the extremely low temperatures of the jail cells,” she wrote in the petition. “I don’t know how long he’ll be able to continue staying strong and fighting to come back home.”

Tuesday’s protest was held in partnership with United We Dream, “the largest youth organization fighting against deportation,” according to spokesperson Luis Yumbla. Yumbla received a call through the organization’s hotline about Juan’s case and immediately rallied around the cause. “We’re here for Juan and we’re here to send a message to the government,” he said. City Council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents the 38th District, went to the hearing to show his support. The Council member said “Juan Esteban’s detention is just one more reminder of the pressing need to pass a clean DREAM Act.”

No date has been set for Juan’s hearing but it will likely be in the next two weeks. In the meantime, Juan’s family members just want their son, brother and cousin home. His sister Daniela writes: “I can’t even imagine what would happen if my brother Juan Esteban were deported. I don’t want to imagine a life without him. I simply can’t.”