Family members welcome Paulino Ruiz home at Sea-Tac airport.
Family members welcome Paulino Ruiz home at Sea-Tac Airport. Kelly O

A man who spent eight years behind bars for the crime of stealing a pack of cigarettes, according to his supporters, came home to his family late last night at Sea-Tac Airport. His name is Paulino Ruiz.

Ruiz is a member of Colectivo de Detenidos (Collective of Detainees), a group of prisoners at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center who went on hunger strike last year to protest dire conditions within the jail. Authorities responded by threatening the protesters with solitary confinement and force-feeding. The Seattle Human Rights Commission recognized the bravery of the group in a ceremony last December.

Family members drove from Woodburn, Oregon, just south of Portland, to meet Ruiz at Sea-Tac. He arrived at the baggage claim area with nothing more than a small backpack.

"I kept fighting and knew that one day I could come out," he said, in between embracing family members and supporters who'd written him letters and publicized the hunger strike. "I'm going to go eat a big steak... I'm going to go to school... Hopefully I can be an advocate on this whole situation and just start my life all over again."

His attorney, Sandy Restrepo, who's based in the Seattle area, said Ruiz was recently on the brink of being deported. He flew in from New Mexico, where he'd been held in a processing center. Authorities released him, however, pending approval of a visa.

Paulino Ruiz, center, with his supporters and family, including his brother Abraham, far right.
Paulino Ruiz, center, with his supporters and family, including his brother Abraham, far right. Kelly O

Abraham Ruiz, his older brother, recounted the conversation he had with an immigration agent:

"We told them that he made a mistake. I felt guilty for a while because I let him get to where he's at. I felt like it was my fault. I should have been a better brother. The guy that was signing the visa told me, 'It's your fault. Why is he here?' I told him, 'I was a young kid, too. We come from a troubled place. I'm more educated now, I got my school done... I have better tools to help him now. We're in a difference place now.'"

He said his little brother had been intoxicated and had walked out of a gas station in Woodburn with a pack of cigarettes without paying for them. That's what landed him in jail.

Abraham and Paulino emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, at ages 11 and 3, respectively. "We saw people get shot all the time," Abraham said. "People don't realize where we come from and what we went through. I'm not blaming everything I did on my past, but it does have something to do with it. There are things that we went through that we don't like to talk about."

President Obama has been campaigning for criminal justice reform. "These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made," the president said during a visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma yesterday.

Abraham said family members back home in Oregon were texting him, asking him to send photos to prove that Paulino had really arrived.

"Tonight we celebrate this impossible victory, and tomorrow we keep fighting for the rest of our gente," wrote Restrepo, Paulino's attorney, in a Facebook post. Congressional quotas require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill 34,000 detention beds with people alleged to have violated immigration rules. Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center incarcerates about 1,000 people.