Pubdate: Sun, 07 Aug 2005
Source: Belleville News-Democrat (IL)
Copyright: 2005 Belleville News-Democrat
Author: Mike Fitzgerald


Small Drug Crimes Lead Three Long-Time Residents To Deportation Orders

Antonio Ramirez lived for 37 years in America, nearly all of them in the 

A legal immigrant from Mexico, Ramirez earned a living driving trucks and 
operating construction cranes. He married, raised a family and did not have 
a criminal record.

But everything changed when someone offered him $1,000 to drive a 1987 Ford 
van from Los Angeles to St. Louis.

The van, as it turned out, contained marijuana.

Forty-five packets of it were carefully shrink-wrapped, 107 pounds in all, 
and hidden under compartments above the wheel wells.

A police officer discovered the pot following a traffic stop in eastern 

Ramirez denied any knowledge of the contraband cargo. But later, on the 
advice of a public defender, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of 
transporting marijuana.

Now Ramirez, 56, is living back in Mexico, having been deported, while his 
family remains in the Fairmont City and Collinsville area.

He is trying to do the near impossible -- undo his deportation and return home.

"I need to come back," Ramirez said, speaking to a reporter by telephone 
from his native province of Zacatecas, 1,500 miles to the south. "America 
is my home."

On June 10, U.S. immigration officials picked up Ramirez at a federal 
lockup in Missouri's Bootheel, where he had spent more than a year, and 
deported him to Mexico.

More than 80,000 immigrants are expected to be deported from the United 
States in 2005. They face a minimum of 10 years' wait before they can apply 
for re-entry.

His hopes of returning to the United States hinge on his efforts to set 
aside the drug charge he was convicted of in December 2003.

Meanwhile, a similar strategy soon could pay off for Maria Perez, 42, of 

Perez had been locked up in the same jail where Ramirez had lived -- the 
Mississippi County Detention Center, in Charleston, Mo. -- for the past 11 
months before being released Friday after posting $5,000 bond.

She's been fighting a federal immigration judge's order to deport her to 
her native Chile because of her guilty plea to cocaine possession. 
Immigration agents arrested Perez and put her in jail in September, after 
she had completed her probation on the drug conviction.

Like Ramirez, Perez said she had pleaded guilty only on the advice of her 
lawyer, who didn't realize the immigration consequences of a guilty plea.

But in June, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals remanded Perez's case to 
the immigration court judge who had ordered her deported. Her hearing is 
scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday in a federal office building in downtown St. 

Belleville lawyer Neal Connors, who is now representing Perez, said 
prospects look good this time around for the judge to cancel the 
deportation order and authorize her release from jail.

"We're in the doorway and we're ready to run through," Connors said.

The odds of re-entry

Antonio Ramirez's battle to return to the United States spotlights the 
quandary that faces jailed immigrants who fight deportation orders.

Like Ramirez, they can allow themselves to be deported to their home 
countries and escape incarceration in the U.S.

But such a strategy has a big downside: Immigrants convicted of drug crimes 
are rarely granted waivers to re-enter the United States.

"It's virtually impossible," said Marshall Fitz, associate director of the 
American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.

The other option is for jailed immigrants to fight deportation from jail, 
even if it means spending months or years in jail on the criminal charge.

That's been the tactic pursued by Perez, who said she never considered 
giving up her fight to remain in the United States, which has been her home 
since she fled Chile with her family 29 years ago.

If she leaves, she risks never again seeing her 12-year-old son or 
14-year-old daughter, who live with her parents in Fairmont City.

"I did it for my kids," said Perez, who insists that the bag of cocaine 
residue a Collinsville Police officer found in a trash can did not belong 
to her.

Legal effort

For the Ramirez family, the past year as been difficult.

Teresa Avila, 52, of Fairmont City, is the younger sister of Antonio 
Ramirez, as well as a close friend of Maria Perez, whose elderly parents 
live only a few blocks away.

The unsuccessful legal effort to halt her brother's deportation has proved 
draining, both emotionally and financially. Her family still owes his 
former attorneys in St. Louis more than $5,000.

Avila spoke in halting English and often turned to her niece Daisy, 16, to 
serve as a translator.

Daisy Avila criticized the federal law that required the automatic 
deportation of her uncle.

"Everybody has different circumstances," she said.

A product of reforms that Congress passed in 1996, the law gives the 
federal government wide powers to lock up and deport noncitizens convicted 
of even minor crimes.

As a result, federal immigration judges have lost most of their discretion 
in determining whether defendants deserved a second chance, said Fitz, the 
immigration lawyers spokesman.

"We certainly would love to see a return to some type of balance where the 
equities of a given situation can be considered," said Fitz, adding the law 
"sweeps too broadly."

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration 
Studies, in Washington, D.C., argued against the softening of federal 
statutes governing immigration.

"It's not the American people's problem," Krikorian said. "It is the 
criminals who created the situation, and they bear the exclusive 
responsibility for whatever problems their families are facing."

Defense strategy

Ramirez is basing his effort to return to America on the same strategy used 
by Perez: getting a judge to toss out his original guilty plea.

In January 2004, a judge in Arizona sentenced Ramirez to five months' 
probation and allowed him to return to Illinois after he pleaded guilty to 
a felony charge of transporting marijuana for sale.

Five months later, though, federal agents arrested him after he registered 
with the Madison County probation office in Edwardsville. The agents 
whisked Ramirez off to the jail in Mississippi County, Mo., his home from 
May 2004 to June of this year.

Ramirez argued that his court-appointed lawyer in Arizona had failed to 
inform him that he faced automatic deportation because of the guilty plea.

"If I knew that, then I wouldn't have pleaded guilty," he said. He now is 
represented by Neal Connors, too.

Perez, in contrast, had successfully used the same argument earlier this 
year before a Madison County judge.

But on two key points, the differences between Ramirez's and Perez' 
situation could make all the difference:

* The quantity of drugs the two were charged with possessing -- 107 pounds 
of marijuana found in the Ford van Ramirez was driving, compared with a 
trace amount of cocaine residue that Perez pleaded guilty to possessing.

* The role of prosecutors in the case. Perez's drug conviction was 
overturned in February only after the Madison County state's attorney's 
office indicated it would not oppose the effort.

In Ramirez's situation, prosecutors in Navajo County, Ariz., have already 
successfully opposed Ramirez's first effort to overturn his drug conviction.

Connors, his attorney, acknowledged Ramirez faces long odds in trying to 
set aside his guilty plea, thereby erasing the grounds for the deportation 
order. But achieving that goal will require help from a lawyer in Arizona, 
Connors said.

"My strategy is to get with (Ramirez's) family to examine the economics of 
getting a good Arizona firm involved in retrying this case," Connors said. 
"He needs a new trial."

Undeterred, Ramirez promised to continue his battle to return to his home 
and life in Madison County.

"I just want to see my family again," he said.
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