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Sioux Falls man released from federal custody amid COVID-19

Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 5:22 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A Guatemalan native living in Sioux Falls was able to win his freedom from federal custody in Minnesota with the help of a new racial justice project being undertaken by a national law firm with Sioux Falls ties.

William Zacarias’ story is one of hope for a new life but a surprise medical diagnosis coupled with a drug arrest threatened to end his American Dream.

William Zacarias is most at ease when he can care for his adopted guinea pigs at his home here in Sioux Falls. He’s called the city his home for just over five years now.

“I’m from Guatemala. I came to the United States in July 2015. I came because I wanted to change my life,” says William.

But a change in his life also likely meant William was saving his life. Guatemala is known for its violence. As recently as 2018, 101 murders were being committed in the country every week.

According to the U.S. State Department, Guatemala has serious problems with drug trafficking and human trafficking and violence against specific minority groups, including gays and lesbians.

William didn’t want to die because of who he is.

“The rights of LGBTQ people over there are not ok, are always violated. We’re abused, or most of the time they’re killed.”

So, William left Guatemala and came to Sioux Falls to live a calmer existence. But soon after arriving in the U.S., William learned something about his health that he didn’t know.

“I was concerned about it cause I am a person living with HIV. I didn’t know I had it when I came to the United States.”

Fleeing violence but in the U.S. illegally and now a life-changing medical diagnosis.

Still, William felt fortunate to be here and forged a new beginning with a new job, new friends, and eventually a fiancee.

But this January, the life William had started to build for himself hit a brick wall.

“It was for possession of a controlled substance. I’ve been unfortunately going through drug addiction.”

William pled guilty to a drug possession charge in Minnehaha county. As a result, his illegal status began clear to law enforcement and also to federal immigration and customs enforcement officers, who in January took William into custody and eventually shuttled him through three ICE detainment centers in Minnesota.

Just weeks after being taken into federal custody, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“It’s really difficult for them to follow social distancing. there’s not the same accessibility to hand washing,” says Sunny Beddow.

Beddow is a Minnesota based attorney with the Ballard Spahr law firm, which has an office here in Sioux Falls. When Beddow became aware of Zacarias’ case, she took him on a client pro bono as part of the law firm’s new racial justice and equality initiative.

“You’re in a general population with all these other people that you don’t know if they have it, if they have symptoms it’s hard for them to get tested. Again, the masking is difficult,” says Beddow.

The COVID-19 virus attacks people and depending on their underlying health issues can either make someone mildly ill or seriously ill or it can kill them.

William’s HIV diagnosis means he is consistently immuno-compromised, putting him in what the CDC says is a high-risk zone for infection.

“When the COVID-19 shows up I was a little bit concerned about it. Cause if someone gets with the COVID-19 in one facility it’s like an incubator for the virus,” says William.

A few months ago, Zacarias, on his own, argued before a federal judge that he should not be deported back to Guatemala because if he were, his life would be in near-certain danger. and on his own, Zacarias won that case with no attorney. But the Department of Homeland Security filed an appeal meaning Zacarias could not yet be released from ICE custody.

In the meantime, Zacarias continued being held in Elk River, Minnesota as the COVID-19 pandemic continued. That’s when Sunny Beddow went to court on Zacarias’ behalf.

“We filed a new habeas petition, sort of on different ground, and that ground is that the government isn’t just allowed to hold people forever and by this point, they had already been holding him for six months,” says Beddow.

Six months behind bars with limited ability for social distancing, Sunny Beddow told the court keeping Zacarias in a situation like that given his health was inhumane and that there was no reason why he couldn’t be released as the DHS appeal worked its way through the courts.

“He doesn’t have any violent offenses, he’s not considered a threat to public safety, it wasn’t distribution or anything like that,” says Beddow.

Earlier this month, with no real advanced warning, federal ICE officials released Zacarias from the Elk River facility, telling him he was free to go back to Sioux Falls.

“I really have no words to say thank you to them. They do everything to get me out of there.”

Attorney Sunny Beddow tells us she is pleased that Zacarias was released from federal custody but she can’t explain why it happened because although she filed the court brief on Zacarias’ behalf, she says she did not directly hear from the Department of Homeland Security about it. She knew Zacarias had been freed when he called her to let her know what had happened.

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