Early in the morning of Dec. 19, bartender Juan “J.P.” Caceres-Rojas stepped into a cab and, for reasons not clear, allegedly began cursing at the driver, according to a police report from the evening. The incident apparently escalated, leading to the popular mixologist’s arrest and ultimate detention by immigration officials for remaining in the United States illegally.
Caceres-Rojas (who goes by the name “J.P. Caceres”) was released Thursday evening from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Farmville, Va., where he has been held for nearly a month since his arrest. He now faces three misdemeanor criminal charges: simple assault, threats to do bodily harm and possession of a prohibited weapon. He’s scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 6 for a status hearing.
The outcome of his case will be important to Caceres-Rojas’s future in the States. Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency places a priority on deporting convicted criminal aliens, meaning a conviction could place Caceres-Rojas on a fast-track back to Bolivia. An acquittal could mean he remains here.
Caceres-Rojas has been living in the States since 2002, but according to ICE officials, an immigration judge ordered his removal when he failed to voluntarily deport himself by Feb. 10, 2011. He had apparently avoided ICE detection until the mid-December incident with the cab driver.
According to the police report, the cabbie inserted ear buds to try to ignore Caceres-Rojas’s insults, but the bartender allegedly pulled the plugs out and continued to berate the driver. The cabbie claims that Caceres-Rojas told him “several times” that he would “[mess] him up, you don’t know what I have.” The cabbie then claims that when his car approached the intersection of First Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, Caceres-Rojas placed the fare and an ice pick in his right hand, with the five-inch pick pointed toward the driver, and told him to “take the money.”
The driver, according to the report, “was afraid of being stabbed so he did not take the money.” He called police instead.
On Friday morning, following his first night of sleep at home since the altercation, Caceres-Rojas said he couldn’t discuss the incident. But the bartender added that, sometime in the future, “we actually can have a drink and laugh about this one, because it is to laugh.”
What wasn’t so funny is Caceres-Rojas’s time in detention. He said he was first sent to the Rappahannock Regional Jail for a couple of days before being relocated to the Farmville facility. He said he was confined to a small cell at Rappahannock, with only a metal bed and a toilet. “I didn’t understand what freedom means until I was there,” he said. “You can’t talk to anyone. You can’t read a book. There’s nothing for you to do, so time goes a lot slower.”
He had no contact with anyone until Sunday, Dec. 22, four days after his arrest. That’s when two aunts came to visit. “At first, I was completely depressed,” Caceres-Rojas said. “What’s going to happen to me?”
At one point during his detention, Caceres-Rojas made peace with his situation. On Jan. 10, he said he decided to go back to Bolivia. Caceres-Rojas, in fact, might have been back home this week if it weren’t for one fact: His immigration officer was on vacation. “I would be gone, because the trip to Bolivia was yesterday,” he said.
But a friend, Anna Duff, changed his mind. “She just sat me down like a little kid and said, ‘No, you can’t go back home. You can’t give up,’” Caceres-Rojas said.
Not long after her visit, Duff said, she created the GoFundMe page to raise money for Caceres-Rojas’s legal defense. The initial goal was $7,500, but in little more than a day, friends and fans had contributed more than $14,000. The fundraisers have since increased the goal to $20,000 “to realistically reflect the amount of JP’s attorney’s fees.” As of Friday afternoon, more than $16,600 had been raised.
The bartender has been moved by the generosity. In some ways, Caceres-Rojas said, the contributions feel like a validation of his work. He has dedicated himself not only to creating quality cocktails, he said, but also to trying to broaden the D.C. mixologist talent pool through classroom teaching and his work as president of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild.
Caceres-Rojas acknowledges he violated a judge’s order to voluntarily leave. He said he feared that, should he leave, he would have to wait 10 years before he could legally return. (ICE officials said that is incorrect; had he left voluntarily, he would have had “no bar to legal re-entry,” according to Christensen.) But Caceres-Rojas said he also wanted to finish what he had started in D.C.’s bartending community.
“This is my home at the end of the day,” he said. “All I know is the restaurant business in Washington, D.C., in the United States. . . . So I’m going to stay. I’m going to fight one more battle.”
His newly hired attorney thinks the bartender has a strong case. The public’s financial and emotional support for Caceres-Rojas has been impressive, said Andres Benach, an immigration lawyer and founding partner at Benach Ragland.
“Those factors really say a lot about the quality of this young man, and hopefully they will help us work out an agreeable solution with immigration,” Benach said.