Council supports Island worker detained by ICE
Backed by hundreds of signatures on a petition, and dozens of letters of support, Block Island Grocery owner Mary Jane Balser made an impassioned, emotional, and ultimately successful plea to have the Block Island Town Council draft a resolution supporting one of her employees who was recently taken off the island and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Meriton Gurguri, a native of Kosovo who has been an employee of the Block Island Grocery and who first came to the Island in 2010, had overstayed his J-1 Visa, which was the reason for his detention. Balser said someone alerted ICE about Gurguri’s residence on the island.
A crowd of people packed into Town Hall Wednesday afternoon to attend the Town Council’s work session and lend heartfelt support to Gurguri, who Balser said was taken off the island on Feb. 27. Balser told the Council that Gurguri is now being detained at a Bristol County ICE facility in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
After Balser, and some members of the public spoke of Gurguri’s good standing in the community, the Town Council voted unanimously to draft a resolution supporting the idea of allowing him to be released on bond, which would enable him to come back to Block Island as his case makes its way through the court system. First Warden Ken Lacoste made the motion that was seconded by Councilor Chris Willi.
Of the Council’s drafting of the resolution, Willi kept it simple, and said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
Second Warden André Boudreau said he wrote a letter of support for Gurguri. “I’m ready to sign the resolution,” he said.
The Town Council’s resolution asks that the Executive Office of Immigration Review of the U.S. Justice Department give Gurguri “positive, and lenient consideration.”
Resident Marguerite Donnelly said that Gurguri is a “fine person,” and that it was “a very important resolution” to draft. “We’re not putting our necks on the line for someone who’s been a troublemaker.” She noted the usefulness of the Mary D Fund in situations like this, and asked the Town Council to do their part. “You have the ball rolling.”
“I think this resolution is the best we can do,” said resident Rich Tretheway. “Let’s put it in the tool box and let them decide. It’s the best we can do, so that’s what we should do.”
As for what might happen to Gurguri, Balser informed the Council that a judge can either deport Gurguri back to Kosovo or allow him to seek due process and a path to U.S. citizenship. “We’re asking that he be bonded to come home,” said Balser. An immigration bond is a type of surety bond used to secure release of an individual who is living illegally in the United States.
Balser said that, to-date, Gurguri’s situation has generated $13,000 in donations to cover legal fees, 400 signatures on a petition, and 40 letters of support. She also said Gurguri does not have a green card.
“My President told me that we are deporting felons,” said Balser. “My President has told me that we are going after felons. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Never has anyone said that they were going to take people who have done nothing but a J-1 Visa overstay.”
Balser said that Gurguri has “been a good citizen, and an asset to the community.” She explained that Gurguri initially came to Block Island in 2010 on a J-1 Visa. He left and returned in 2011. At that time, Balser said Gurguri was encouraged by his parents to not return to his war-torn country.
“The outpouring of support has been tremendous,” said a teary-eyed Balser. “This is a caring community. Everyone knows about and cares about everyone. We may disagree, but when someone is sick, or someone has a problem, this community rises up like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It makes me proud to live here.”
Resident Susan Bush told the Town Council that an ACLU lawyer told her about the importance of community advocacy. Bush had a strong message for the Council. She said, “You are members of the community, representing us, and I think you should step up to the plate, and join us with this, as a collective representation for all of us.” Lacoste and some members of the community thanked Bush for her comments, which were met with applause.
The Town Council will sign the resolution, and then give it to Balser so she can submit it as part of Gurguri’s legal testimony.