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“I’m a free man!” JP Caceres booms as he bursts through the door of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Fairfax. Well, almost. The local mixologist, who’s made a name for himself in recent years creating cocktails at some of the city’s top restaurants, places his leg on a chair and rolls up his jeans to show off an electronic tracking bracelet around his left ankle.
“I’m like an electric car, you have to charge me up,” Caceres says with a laugh. “I’m like Lindsay Lohan!”
Caceres’s friends Anna Duff and Juan, who asked that his last name not be used, give him bear hugs.
“Oh, I missed my Papa,” Duff says, referring to Caceres’ nickname, a nod to the cocktail-loving Ernest Hemingway. “Everybody missed you so much!”
“Your mom’s been calling for you. Your aunt wants to call you,” Juan says. “A million people.”
Duff and Juan have been waiting nearly two hours for Caceres’ release in this small beige room, with rows of empty chairs and not much to look except a poster of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and some motivational signs reading “Teamwork,” “Success,” and “Attitude.” An hour earlier, Duff and Juan had a chance to briefly reunite with Caceres, as he was escorted through the front doors of the Fairfax facility for processing and paperwork after a four-hour drive from an immigration detention center in Farmville, Va. Caceres, an undocumented immigrant whose full name is Juan Pablo Caceres-Rojas, had been detained there for nearly a month and still faces deportation to his native Bolivia. He was detained after an arrest on Dec. 19 for alleged simple assault, threats to do bodily harm, and possession of a prohibited weapon, according to D.C. Superior Court records.
Caceres was released from the detention center “under the alternatives to detention (ATD) program pending the outcome of his criminal case,” according to a statement from ICE. The agency says it “makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis with a priority for detention of serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety. Those who are not subject to mandatory detention and don’t pose a threat to the community may be placed on some form [of] supervision as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program.”
For now, Caceres has a huge smile on his bearded face. His slicked back hair has grown long, and he’s lost 20 pounds, but he looks healthy in his freshly cleaned flannel shirt and puffy gray winter vest. He’s still wearing the black and white, Converse-like shoes supplied at the detention center. He thought they looked kind of cool.
Duff and I take one car and Juan and Caceres take another, so Caceres can call his mom, who he hasn’t seen since he left Bolivia in 13 years ago, and his aunt, who he’ll be staying with in Arlington. We meet up with Caceres again at Duff’s Arlington apartment, where she brings out a spread of cheese, meats, and nuts and pours a round of sparkling wine.
“To Operation Free JP success,” Duff cheers. A couple days ago, Duff had started a crowdfunding campaign on the website GoFundMe called Operation Free JP, with the goal of raising $20,000 to help pay for Caceres’ legal fees. So far, the site has raised more than $16,500 from more than 230 people. “That speaks to how much people love JP,” Duff says. “He’s always been there for me. You can call him at three in the afternoon or three in the morning, and he will pick up the phone.”
Duff and Caceres had vaguely discussed the idea of a trying to raise funds to pay for an attorney while he was in the detention center, but Caceres wasn’t fully aware she’d gone ahead with it—or how viral the campaign had gone—until a bartender friend he’d mentored showed up in Farmville. “I was like, ‘How does she know that I’m here?’ Because I kept it very quiet,” he says. “And then she says, ‘Oh, JP, it’s all over the Internet.’”
A week ago, however, Caceres was ready to go back to Bolivia. “The only thing that kept me going every day—because I’d never been in a situation like this, never been incarcerated—is I’m going to go see my mom. I haven’t been home in 13 years because the same system didn’t allow me to leave the United States.” The first week in the immigration detention center, Caceres read four books, including Brothers, about the Kennedy siblings, and another about the Chilean dictatorship, because there wasn’t much else to do. He passed the rest of his time playing cards and dominoes for ramen noodles, watching TV, and working out. He slept in a big room with dozens of people and no pillow. “It was tough,” he says. “The hours go soooo slow there.”
Eating bologna sandwiches, soy meat, and steamed vegetables was also an adjustment for the self-described bon vivant, who dines out at restaurants four to five nights a week. Between the limited diet and exercise to pass the time, Caceres says he lost about a pound a day. “The illegal immigrant diet worked,” he says. Jokes aside, Caceres says the experience humbled him: “I couldn’t afford to be picky…I was starving, going from 32 ounces of beautiful ribeye at Del Campo to a bologna sandwich.”
Caceres eventually tried to put his time to a productive cause. As one of the few people who spoke English in the detention center, Caceres spent a lot of time translating paperwork for other immigrants facing deportation.
He says he was actually supposed to have been deported by now. “Call it a voice, call it God, call it whatever you want to call it, the officer who was supposed to do my paperwork went on vacation,” he says. As a result, his deportation was delayed. Still, he’d resigned himself to the idea that he was eventually going back to Bolivia.
Then last Friday, Duff came to visit him. “He was very depressed. He’d lost weight. His skin was kind of gray,” she recalls. “He wanted to go home.” She told him either way there was a chance he would go back, whether it was voluntarily or whether he got in front of a judge and was ultimately deported. She told him, “You’re a fighter, not a quitter.”
“She said, ‘I know why you want to leave, because you want to leave this place. I get it. You’re making that decision when you’re down. Think about the future. Make that decision when you’re up,’” Caceres remembers. “She was right.”
“She picked me up from the floor saying, ‘No, we’re going to fight it one more time. You’ve got to do it. There’s nothing for you to lose. Think of all the people who love you out there.”
Caceres had built a strong network of friends and colleagues over the years. He first moved to the U.S. with $200 in his pocket and a temporary visitor visa in 2002 after studying law in Bolivia. (According to ICE, he overstayed that six-month visa.) Caceres didn’t speak any English. He slowly taught himself by reading and trying to translate the Washington Post during his breaks as a parking valet at the Inova Fairfax Hospital—not far from the immigration facility from which he was released yesterday.
Caceres eventually got a job as a barback at Zaytinya and worked his way up to bar manager at Oyamel. Over the course of his career, he’s built a name for himself as one of the top mixologists in the area, creating cocktails at Sushiko, Againn, Tryst, Jackie’s, and elsewhere. He launched his own company, Let’s Imbibe Beverage Consulting, and most recently created the cocktail menus at MXDC and Del Campo. Caceres is also the president of the D.C. chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild.
That early job at Zaytinya is also where Caceres met his ex-wife, who was a waitress at the time he was a barback. The couple was married for about five years, during which time Caceres tried to get a green card. He got a Social Security card and a work permit, which he continued to renew every year, but the permanent green card never came through. Think Food Group, which owns Zaytinya and Oyamel, offered to sponsor him for a green card, Caceres says, but he declined because he figured he’d get one through his then-wife. When he and his wife separated, “by law, I can’t apply for a green card because she was no longer in my petition,” he says. ICE confirms that his petition to become a permanent resident was denied “based on the fact that he divorced the U.S. citizen who sponsored his application.”
He kept fighting the case to see if he could do it on his own. But in 2010, Caceres says, his visa expired. That was the same year that the Post named him one of Washington’s top “new mixmasters.” And his career was taking off in general: “I was in every paper every month.”
Facing the prospect of having “no status,” Caceres debated whether to stay or go back to Bolivia. “I had too much to lose. I didn’t want to,” he says. “I knew that I was doing something good. I had too much to lose. It’s in a selfish way to say, ‘No, I’m not going to go,’ but it’s called surviving, right?”
Caceres declined to comment about the arrest that led to his detainment on Dec. 19, saying the case is ongoing. According to a police statement, Caceres took a cab before 2 a.m. and allegedly began cursing at the driver. The driver told police that he put on his headphones, and Caceres pulled them out and continued to yell and curse. Caceres allegedly stated he was going “fuck him up, you don’t know what I have.” As they approached the intersection of 1st Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, Caceres allegedly placed money and an ice pick in his right hand and clenched his hand, forming a fist with the sharp point of the ice pick protruding. The driver told officers that Caceres told him to take the money, but he was afraid of being stabbed, so he didn’t take it and called police. A court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 6.
Caceres’ just-hired attorney Andres Benach, who specializes in immigration law, is holding off on commenting for now. “I want to be helpful, but I do not know very much yet,” he tells Y&H via email. “Please give me some time to familiarize myself with his background and his current situation and I will gladly speak with you.”*
For now, Caceres has his sights set on moving forward, resolving his legal troubles, and fighting to stay in the U.S. The response to Operation Free JP has overwhelmed and motivated him. “I’m not going to give up. Last Thursday, it was a completely different story. Since Friday, I know I have so much here. There’s so many people that are asking, ‘What can we do?’ So I’m going to do it for them, I’m going to do it for me, I’m going to do it for my mother, for my family. I’m going to fight. We have the right people behind it, so hopefully this will be part of the past within the next couple months, and I’ll be back making drinks.”
*UPDATE 4:43 p.m.: Benach says Caceres’ release from the immigration detention center was “not very common” for someone who has a final order of removal, as he does. Benach says he gives ICE credit for recognizing that Caceres doesn’t present a danger. “Second, he has a lot of support in the community, and that counts for a lot,” he says. Benach adds that same qualities that made him a good candidate for release should help Caceres in his deportation case. “ICE has a lot of discretion about who they support and who they monitor and focus their efforts and energies upon,” he says. But he hopes to get Caceres “proper and wholly legal immigration status.”
As for the D.C. court case, Benach says he’s referred Caceres to “one of the best criminal lawyers in the city” who has “plenty of familiarity dealing with well-known clientele.” Benach says he did not have permission to disclose that lawyer’s identity because Caceres hasn’t met with or retained him yet. “I’m fairly hopeful that what seems like a fairly silly misunderstanding doesn’t turn into a major problem,” he says.
Photo via Operation Free JP