Matthew Rojas Detained, Fifth Amendment Denied

On Dec. 1, a Facebook video revealed an unidentified woman interrupting a group of community members protesting the detainment of New Paltz resident Matthew Rojas by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

In the video, the woman is seen yelling at and derogating the protestors. This prompted a protester to cross the street before she could allegedly reach them. The woman is next seen in front of Chase Bank tearing apart and stepping on a sign from one of the protestors that reads “we need our familia back home” with the pride flag and “abolish ICE” written on the bottom. 

New Paltz residents have protested outside the Elting Memorial Library on Main Street every Saturday since Rojas’ arrest on Nov. 27. The 23-year-old was detained upon entering his scheduled court date to answer charges of possession of cocaine and marijuana from his arrest on Oct. 27.

As an active member of the New Paltz community, Rojas goes by “Fantasea” in drag and was organizing a Lady Gaga variety show that would include live music, drag performances and burlesque at Snugs Harbor on Dec. 3. Unfortunately, he did not get the chance to host his own event, but with enough community organization, it still took place. A voice message from Rojas in the Essex Correctional Facility in New Jersey played over the speakers, “I spent my teenage years crying in my room and watching Lady Gaga preach love and acceptance to thousands of people, reassuring them that they weren’t freaks….now at 23 years old, I’m still crying in a room, only with 59 other detainees. I still feel like a freak but instead of thinking of Stefani Germanotta, I think of you beautiful people in my life.”  

While the charges of unlawful possession of marijuana and criminal possession of a controlled substance to the seventh degree could be validated by the criminal justice system, it is Rojas’ apprehension that needs to be condemned. To deny someone the chance to answer their own charges is disrespectful to the criminal justice system and deprives the defendant of their Fifth Amendment right to due process. The right to due process essentially ensures that a party has the right to receive a fundamentally fair, orderly and just judicial proceeding. Rojas’ unexpected detainment outside the courthouse stripped away his constitutional rights. 

We at The New Paltz Oracle urge the village to pass a law that prohibits ICE from making a courthouse arrest without a judicial warrant. While this is a step in the right direction, it is clear now that being a sanctuary city is not enough, and more can be done to protect the lives of those in our community. A city’s sanctuary status restricts local law enforcement from coordinating with ICE for the purposes of immigration enforcement. It does not state that an undocumented person is safe from federal immigration enforcement, but it ensures that a person’s immigration status is not in question until there is evidence of a violent felony. This, however, was not enough for Rojas’ safety since he was not provided a chance at court, whose main objective is to be a place of justice and equity. 

The New York Times reported that in New York City, “Black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years” and “Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people.” Government surveys, however, have shown that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, and black and Hispanic people are the main targets of arrests, even in mostly white neighborhoods, according to The Times. The visible disproportionate rates of arrests for minorities compared to whites on drug charges are staggering.

Rojas’ arrest and possible deportation reflects the nationwide issue of detainment and deportation, specifically those of the “Dreamers,” who are children of immigrants that were brought to the United States before the age of 16 by their parents or guardians. Rojas was brought here when he was only 3 years old, so he has no history or experience in the country he could get deported to. 

Rojas’ life in New Paltz is dependent on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); a policy that allows individuals to defer deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the United States. DACA gives children and young adults the chance to receive a renewable two-year period of deferment, not citizenship. This allows them to function as members of society, pay taxes and make a life for themselves after being brought here until legal citizen status is possible. 

Whether or not the charges against him are legitimate, Rojas lost the chance to defend himself and could be sent to a country he has no life in. To remove him from his home, his friends and family, and deny him the chance to become a legal citizen or defend himself in court, means the justice system and ICE agency have failed him, as they have failed so many others. 

According to The Daily Beast, this year saw record-breaking numbers of people in immigration detention compared to recent years.  ICE held an average of more than 44,000 people in custody each day throughout the 2018 fiscal year, in comparison to 39,000 last year. ICE has separated families at the border, detained thousands of innocent children and restricted the lives and safety of many immigrants. The constant detainment of immigrants is at the top of President Trump’s agenda, and the numbers prove that immigration enforcement leans heavily towards terrorization rather than actual reform. Additionally, the administration has asked for nearly $2.8 billion to expand detention capacity for an average of 49,000 adults and 2,500 families. 

To continue eligibility for DACA status, recipients cannot have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. Rojas has neither of these on his record and he does not have the chance to defend himself against the non-violent felony charges made against him. We at The Oracle believe that Rojas should be released from ICE detention and given the fair chance at court that he did not receive on Nov. 27. By detaining Rojas on his court date and confining him in an ICE facility, this violates his rights and deprives him of his life and liberty. 

Unfortunately, Rojas’ case isn’t new to New Paltz. In February, Joel Guerrero was arrested for missing a court date in 2010 for a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana. The case sparked a major interest in the community, especially since Joel’s wife, Jessica, was pregnant at the time and did not know if or when her husband would come back home. The major distress suffered by the Guerrero family is now happening to the family and friends of Rojas. This will only continue to happen if there is no law to protect our local residents, especially those of color who are historically more targeted.  

Rojas did not willfully break the law when he was brought here as a child and should have had his Fifth Amendment rights protected under DACA. To displace any individual from their community, family and friends for a nonviolent felony is too harsh a punishment for someone that has lived in this country for their entire life. Rojas, and other Dreamers, are entitled to face any charges against him and the right to due process instead of being subject to the cruelty of a failed system.