When the members of local experimental rock band Eldren gathered themselves and their gear together for a June 4 show at Aspen's Belly Up, they quickly noticed one person was missing: Josh Lee, the group's violinist, vocalist and electric guitarist. And then they received a call. From inside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Aurora, Lee told them he had been detained and could face deportation to his childhood home of South Korea.
For more than two weeks, Lee has remained in detention, and he faces a best-case release date of July 11, if eligible, while he awaits developments regarding his residency status. In the time since that phone call, prominent members of the local soundscape have gathered to rally around Lee, selling "Free Josh Lee" T-shirts, drafting a Change.org petition for his release and staging a benefit concert to pay for his legal fees. In addition to his full-time role in Eldren, Lee has played guest spots with Caleb Slade, Take to the Oars, My Body Sings Electric, Sarah Slaton, Petals of Spain, Valedictorian and -- the list goes on.
According to Lee's younger sister, Esther Seungjin Lee, the two siblings and their parents moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea in May of 2000. Josh Lee was eleven years old and Esther was nine, and neither has returned to South Korea since. Their father, a small-time pastor, chose Denver because of the growth potential he saw in its Korean Christian community, and he quickly launched a grassroots church in Centennial. "He always wanted to start his own practice from the ground up, and he thought Denver would be the best place to do it," Esther Lee says.
The family applied for permanent residency, but when ICE officials interviewed her father, they found his answers unsatisfactory, Esther Lee says. "Their report indicated they thought he was a fraud, and that's never really gone away or changed," she says.
ICE's policy is not to comment on the details of an individual case, though a representative confirmed Lee has been in custody since June 4 and is not leaving soon.
In the twelve years since they moved, the Lees have applied for residency twice; ICE has denied that request twice and they are currently on their second appeal of that decision. The result is a long-term gray area for the family as a whole -- but the Obama administration's recent executive order allowing most undocumented young people to stay in the country if they were brought here as children would seem to apply to Josh's situation.
However, his case has been complicated by a charge on Josh Lee's criminal record.
In May of 2011, police officers pulled Lee over for a traffic violation before searching his car and discovering a controlled substance. After months of legal negotiations, Lee took a deferred judgment on the charge of possession, whereby he can eventually avoid a formal charge if he obeys the conditions of his plea bargain. But his temporary class six felony drew immediate attention from ICE: On June 4, as Lee accepted two years of probation, ICE representatives met him at the Arapahoe County Probation Department, handcuffed him and took him into custody.
"I visited him that next day, and he was really scared and couldn't stop crying, but he's doing better now," Esther Lee says. "Right now, the goal is just to get him out as soon as possible."
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To that extent, Lee is aided by Denver criminal attorney Malcolm Seawell. Because the possession of a controlled substance charge is the greatest red flag in Lee's case, Seawell hopes to renegotiate the disposition of that charge to avoid the "threat to homeland security" connotations that come with a felony charge attached to an already murky immigration status.
In the meantime, as they navigate their current live schedule without Lee, the four remaining members of Eldren are fundraising to support their detained bandmate. When it came to next weekend's benefit concert on Lee's behalf, local bands such as The Epilogues and In the Whale quickly volunteered to join the lineup, and organizers at the Gothic donated the venue time. "People were already reaching out to help Josh before we could even set anything up," Eldren guitarist and keyboardist Tyler Imbrogno says. He yawns. "Sorry, we've been up all night."
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That's because last night, four-fifths of Eldren gathered to record a cover of the Beatles' "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which they reworked as "Being For the Benefit of Josh Lee" and will pair with a music video to promote the upcoming benefit. "We're just trying to come up with any ideas we can," Imbrogno says. "There are a lot of people out there in the community who really care about Josh."
Next weekend's benefit concert features Eldren, In the Whale, the Epilogues and Caleb Slade and is scheduled for the Gothic Theatre at 9 p.m. on June 29.
More from our Immigration archive: "John Suthers nixes undocumented student tuition discount, Metro disagrees."