(New York, NY) — This week, PEN America filed a friend of the court brief urging the Ninth Circuit to affirm Jose Bello’s First Amendment rights and to reverse the lower court’s findings that Immigration and Customs Enforcement acted within the rule of law when it arrested and detained Mr. Bello just hours after he publicly recited a poem critical of the agency.

As a college student and immigrant activist, Mr. Bello has repeatedly spoken out against ICE and its practices at various forums. Just 36 hours after reading his poem, “Dear America,” Mr. Bello was arrested by ICE in May 2019 and has since been subject to enforcement action. In July 2019, PEN America filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Bello’s First Amendment rights. Although a federal district court denied his petition for release, the court also found that the timing of his arrest was “highly suggestive of retaliatory intent.” This week, PEN America filed a new friend of the court brief in the Ninth Circuit to reiterate its concern that ICE arrested and detained Mr. Bello as a form of retaliation.

“The federal government’s repeated targeting and retaliation of individuals who voice dissent is a blatant violation of these activists’ First Amendment rights,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. free expression programs. “The ability to voice one’s opinion, whether that be through a tweet, an article, or a poem, is one of the most powerful ways we advocate for ourselves and shape conversation. Jose Bello’s arrest exemplifies why the fight for free expression is urgent and ongoing: When authorities can arrest someone like Mr. Bello for simple artistic expression, it poses a threat to everyone’s freedom of speech.”

In its supporting brief, PEN America urges the court to reject the government’s argument that the “First Amendment cannot protect individuals who might otherwise be subject to immigration enforcement from retaliatory actions” and highlights that Mr. Bello’s arrest and the legal actions which flow from it are part of a “calculated choice by ICE to silence Mr. Bello for his words [for which] the protections of the First Amendment appl[y] in full force.”

The brief was written and filed with the help of Alina Das, Professor of Clinical Law at NYU Law and co-director of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, Washington Square Legal Services.

PEN America has previously expressed its concern about the enforcement action taken against Mr. Bello, as well as the broader issues around the erosion of free speech through ICE’s targeted enforcement actions. Most recently, PEN America joined amicus briefs on behalf of detained Tennessee journalist Manuel Duran Ortega, who was arrested in April 2018 while reporting on a protest, and immigrants’ rights activist Ravi Ragbir, who was detained and targeted for deportation following his criticism of ICE at public rallies and on media outlets.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Gina Chung, Communications Manager, gchung@pen.org, +1 646.981.0684