Sunday, April 27, 2008

Minor offenses disrupt lives (The Tennessean)

Crackdown feeds fears of deportation

By CHRIS ECHEGARAY and JANELL ROSS • Staff Writers • April 27, 2008

Loud music was Victor Delgado's downfall. And Marcos Herrera was betrayed by a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Delgado is in Mexico now, deported after being stopped and ticketed for playing his car stereo too loudly. And Herrera is fighting to stay in this country after he was stopped by Nashville police for going a few miles over the speed limit.

But the tentacles of those arrests have spread, as they almost always do in such cases. Delgado's relatives have fled for fear of also being swept up and deported. And Herrera's wife — an American citizen — faces the prospect of raising a child with no husband and meager sources of support.

Both Delgado and Herrera, like hundreds of others, are a part of a growing segment of people who have been caught up in the city's new crackdown on illegal immigrants. Nashville police are making the arrests under a year-old program that allows partnerships between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Both cases are instructive in how lives can now be quickly disrupted by the most innocuous legal transgression. And they shine a light on the shadowy world of those who live in this country without the right papers.

Last fall, Delgado was just awakening when there was a knock at the door. Immigration agents were there to arrest the 19-year-old sheetrock worker, tracked down from a ticket he'd gotten for playing his car stereo too loud.

The traffic citation led to his deportation last month. But there were others who were affected as well. His mother and brother fled to Georgia, fearful that ICE would be back for them, Delgado's uncle, Francisco Ramos, said.

"His record, my record, is as clean as a white sheet of paper," Ramos said. "He's never been separated from his mother until this. My sister was afraid, so I told her to think about leaving. My own sister had to move."

Delgado was in detention in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee before they deported him back to Mexico — a place he no longer thinks of as home.

He moved here from Mexico at 13, coming through the edges of Tijuana with his older brother and mother. From there, Delgado and his family moved to Donelson, where he went to school, learned English and straddled the two worlds of American culture and Mexican customs.

Ramos discussed his nephew's deportation and the breakup of the family amid a throng of people awaiting their turn in traffic court, where his wife had to appear that day because she was ticketed for not having a driver's license. Ramos' nephew was banished, while his wife, who is here legally, simply had to pay a fine.

"It's an injustice when this happens and it's an injustice when people don't speak up about what's happening," Ramos says.

Ramos was once an illegal immigrant. He was fortunate, though, and became a legal U.S. resident with the amnesty of 1986. He's on the path to citizenship but still feels he and his family have been treated shabbily.

"In this country, we say how we are religious and with God, but we don't act this way," Ramos said. "I think there is hate in people's hearts."

'I can't stop worrying'

Sheretta Herrera recalls the moment when her husband was pulled over for speeding.

When she was eight months pregnant, her then-boyfriend and now husband, Marcos, was stopped for speeding in East Nashville. When the officer approached the car, she thought Marcos might get a ticket for speeding and maybe another for driving without a license.

She knew Marcos didn't have a license because he was in the country illegally. But he did have identification — a Honduran passport — and he had insurance as well.

"The officer, he started asking a lot of questions," Sheretta Herrera said, recounting the November 2007 incident. "Then they just told him to step out of the car and they arrested him."

Herrera got on the phone and found out her husband had a $5,000 bond that would have to be paid in full before he could be released. Herrera's in-laws and some of her husband's friends helped her pull the bond together and one friend drove her to the ICE office in Memphis to deliver the payment. Then she and the friend drove to Perry County, Ala., to pick up her husband.

"Marcos isn't a bad person," Herrera said. "He isn't dangerous. But he is about to be separated from his family."

On April 15, Marcos Herrera went to court. The immigration judge gave him 60 days to find a lawyer. He has to come back June 25.

The couple's lawyer has laid out the options — voluntarily depart the country and file a hardship petition that if successful might eventually allow him to return in two years or more. Or he could take his chances and tell a judge that he is the father of a U.S. citizen and husband to another.

Even though he is married to a U.S. citizen and his child was born here, immigration experts say Herrera is not eligible for legal status because he entered the country without the proper documents or permission.

In Honduras, Marcos Herrera will live with his parents and probably work with his father. When he left, the family "worked the fields" for food and income. He doesn't think he'll be able to send money, and his wife doesn't think she'll be able to help him or his family with the money she earns at a Jack in the Box.

Moving the whole family to Guatemala isn't an option. Sheretta Hererra doesn't speak the language and doubts she could find work. So the couple are planning to stay in contact via cell phone and trying to prepare themselves for one, two, maybe more years of separation.

Meanwhile, the question remains how she will be able to finish her degree at Tennessee State University and pay the bills with a new baby and no husband to help provide.

"I can't stop worrying," she said. "I worry about everything. I worry about my daughter growing up without her father. I worry about how I'm going to support her. I worry about who's going to pick her up in the afternoon when I have to work or go to class. I worry about the money. I worry about so much sometimes."

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