MAXWELL:  Deporting a parent

11/29/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Latisha Espinosa, daughter of farm workers, is a high school senior who has spent much of the last two years patiently raising twin brothers on her own. Her father, a Mexican-born man who has toiled the fields of the United States much of his adult life to provide for his children, made a mistake in 1993. He tried to sell some marijuana, and he was sent to prison for it.

Now, the U.S. government wants to make Luis Espinosa pay twice. Not content with the 15 months he has served in prison or the 29 years he has lived and labored in this country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is determined to deport him. More to the point, the INS will strand four children with no mother or father.

“My dad paid for his crime,” Latisha said. “They’re now punishing us.”

Can such punishment possibly make sense?

Espinosa, 47, is a painful example of what ails our immigration system, of how the political momentum to close the nation’s borders has produced unintended consequences. In his case, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act has gone too far. It has taken a family of children who are surviving against enormous odds and is throwing them the cruelest curve of all. It is taking away their father _ their only reliable provider.

Espinosa, a farm worker from Ruskin, sits in the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, La., awaiting deportation to Mexico in a few weeks. His two girls, Jessica, 19, Latisha, 18, 10-year-old twin sons Luis Jr. and Mario, and a 2-month-old granddaughter live alone in a Ruskin labor camp. The children’s mother, who left the father in 1993, lives in another part of the state.

How Espinosa wound up in a Louisiana lockup is a simple enough tale, but the forces driving his case _ the reasons for his deportation _ are ironic and eerily harsh for the American way.

Born Luis Espinosa-Hernandez in 1952 to a poor agricultural family in rural San Francisco del Rincon, Mexico, Espinosa never attended school. Wanting to find a better life, he crossed the border into the United States in 1969 and became a farm worker. In 1983, he married Anna Maria, who was born in the United States. He returned to Mexico for three weeks in 1986 to qualify for immigrant status in America based on his wife’s citizenship.

In 1993, his troubles began. He traveled to Mississippi to look for work. Anna Maria had already deserted him, so he left the children in Ruskin with his wife’s father. After the crop in Mississippi failed, Espinosa became desperate to earn money to send to the children. He returned to Florida, where a friend persuaded him to drive marijuana from Texas to Florida. He was arrested enroute to Florida in Rankin County, Miss., for “possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana but less than 1 kilogram,” an amount not considered an aggravated felony by the INS.

He was arraigned, given a court date and released on bail. He returned to Florida, settled back into life as a farm worker and never went to court. In 1997, he returned to Mississippi to work and was arrested as a fugitive. The judge gave him a two-year sentence. He was released after one year for good behavior. The problem was that Espinosa was handed over to INS and brought to Oakdale.

While Espinosa has been in prison for the last 15 months, his children have had to fend for themselves in a two-bedroom mobile home that does not have air conditioning.

To look inside the lives of these children is to witness a crisis that the U.S. government never should have created and probably did not intend. Even after their father was convicted, the children, all born in Florida, believed that he would return home soon. But as the days stretched into months, the children resigned themselves to living alone and together as a family.

Latisha, or Letty, was nearly 17 when their father was locked up. Now a senior at East Bay High School in Gibsonton, Letty assumed full responsibility for her siblings. Jessica, a year older, dropped out of school. She recently had a baby.

A studious child, Letty was at first angry that she had so many adult responsibilities. “Why me? I kept thinking,” she said, her stoical eyes surveying the small room where her brothers and their friend sit on the worn couch. “But I refused to let my family get split up. I decided to take care of the boys, my sister and her baby.”

Letty and the twins qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school. Other than that, they receive no government largess. The grandfather, a crew leader for farm workers, gives the children $60 a week. Their mother was ordered by the court to pay $400 a month in child support. A farm worker who follows the East Coast migrant stream, she sends what she can, when she can. Often, she has nothing to send.

Letty and her siblings feel no bitterness toward their mother. “Our mom calls,” she said. “Sometimes she comes to visit. She doesn’t have much time because she is a farm worker. She works very hard to send us money.”

Having learned to manage expenses, Letty, with her grandfather’s financial and moral support, consistently pulls together the cash to pay the $87.50 a week rent and the telephone and electric bills. She struggles to keep enough money for food. And when the boys need clothes, she finds ways to dress them.

“I am the boys’ mom, dad, sister, cook and nurse,” she said.

She gets up each morning at 5, dresses herself, wakes the twins and walks them to the bus stop. She catches the school bus at 6:20. The boys are already back in the camp when she arrives at about 3:15. She oversees their homework, cleans the mobile home and prepares dinner if Jessica has not done so. Whenever the boys are ill, Letty nurses them. She cuts their hair every three weeks and even referees disputes when they get into trouble in the camp or fight each other.

Letty, who is slated to graduate this spring and who wants to be a computer analyst, has no social life. She does not date or attend school sporting events or dances. “I’m mostly here all of the time, just taking care of the kids,” she said. “I just go to school, come back home and shop. I don’t have a car. My grandfather has to drive me.”

The twins seem to understand Letty’s sacrifices and try not to give her too much trouble. Because they are poor, the boys watch a lot of television and invent games and toys. They spend many hours in a nearby woods that they call “the clubhouse.” There, they and a friend play cowboys and Indians and engage in other roughhousing.

Even when life goes smoothly, however, Letty knows in the back her mind that she and her family are victims of a cruel waiting game. When their father is deported after Dec. 7, she believes the state Department of Children and Families will try to take the twins.

“Splitting us up is the worst thing that can happen,” she said. “I want to go to college, but, because I just turned 18, I may quit school, get a job and take care of the kids. I don’t want us split up. The kids are better off with me.”

Letty’s calm exterior belies a bitter wisdom that comes to the children of immigrants caught in the legal nightmare of inflexible immigration policies. “Our dad committed one stupid mistake,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do after they deport him. If my dad was here, everything could be fine like before. I could get a part-time job and help him out and still go to school. That’s what we had planned.

“They’re taking our dad away from us, and we’re not able to live our normal lives. . . . My dad is a good person. There was no work. He was taking care of four kids on his own. He didn’t want to drag us all up north _ to Georgia, Tennessee and Michigan _ so he tried to make some fast money for the first time in his life. He used to work three jobs to support us. He would do any kind of work. He would work anywhere. Now he’s being taken from us. What are we going to do?”

Espinosa’s pro bono attorney, Alicia Triche of the Oakdale, La., Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said that her client’s punishment far outweighs his crime, that he is a victim of a law that is too restrictive.

When convicted in 1997 for possession of marijuana and of jumping bail, Espinosa was ruled deportable. Triche filed for a hardship waiver, which, prior to 1996, would have protected her client from deportation because he had resided in the country for seven years. The revised immigration act, however, retroactively made any legal immigrant with a drug conviction subject to immediate deportation _ no matter how long ago the conviction occurred. Before 1996, Triche said, an immigrant ruled deportable still could ask the judge to waive that provision because of the “equities,” the positives, the person has built while in the United States.

The case law allows the judge to decide if the immigrant is basically a good person, to determine the number of relatives in the United States, how long the person has been in the country, the family life, the work history, and then the nature of the crime and whether he or she is contrite.

“The judge decides if you’re good enough to stay in America,” Triche said. “And our judge did decide that Mr. Espinosa was good enough to stay. He said, yes, this crime is egregious, but it is outweighed by the way Mr. Espinosa has taken care of his children, by the way that he has worked hard in the United States. Unfortunately, the judge also said that Mr. Espinosa’s waiver requires that he had to have lived in this country seven years after being legally admitted.”

Therein lies his problem. Even though Espinosa had been in America since 1969, he was not permitted until receiving his green card in 1986. Here, Triche said, is where the law, as interpreted by the judge in the case, is too narrow. When does permission begin? But more important, when does it stop?

In Espinosa’s case, the judge said his permission stopped when he was arrested _ not when he was convicted. The result is that Espinosa missed the seven year-residency requirement by only a few months.

“This portion of the law is open to interpretation, and I want to appeal it,” Triche said. “But Mr. Espinosa has been in jail for over a year now and insists that he wants to be released at any cost _ even it means deportation. We have a good chance of winning on appeal, but he doesn’t care to wait the one to three years it takes to do an appeal before the Board of Immigration Appeals. He’s anxious to go back to Mexico so that he can start sending money to the children. He’s desperate to start supporting them.”

Barring complications, Espinosa should be back on Mexican soil before the end of December. He will leave America without having seen his new granddaughter.

“There’s no common sense in this,” Letty said. “If we’re split up, I’ll quit school if I have to and follow the boys. I have to help them out. The boys don’t say much. They don’t really understand what’s going on. I try telling them, but they’re too young to understand.”

In a key immigration case of nearly two decades ago, federal immigration Judge Irving R. Kaufman wrote: “Deportation is not, of course, a penal sanction. But in severity it surpasses all but the most Draconian criminal penalties.”

The Espinosa children may soon find out just how Draconian the INS can be.