Immigration Twist Gives a Laborer a Fresh Beginning

Immigration Twist Gives a Laborer a Fresh Beginning

Oft-Deported Wilfredo Garza Says He’s Actually Legal; Value of an American Dad

By Lauren Etter

Updated May 12, 2006 12:01 am ET

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Wilfredo Garza has lived in this dusty border town for 28 of his 35 years. Because he was born in Matamoros, Mexico, to a Mexican mother, he had always considered himself Mexican.

Whenever U.S. immigration officials stopped him, the uneducated laborer admitted as much and was returned to Mexico. Then he would swim back across the Rio Grande River to Texas. Over the years, he made three such round trips.

Last year, Mr. Garza — a short, wiry man with angel and devil tattoos on his hands — received a startling piece of information from an immigration lawyer representing his family. Because his father is a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Brownsville, Mr. Garza was likely a citizen too, under a complex area of U.S. immigration law.

That discovery plunged Mr. Garza, an illiterate Spanish-speaker, from one world of uncertainty and confusion into another: a U.S. immigration system struggling to process tens of thousands of new citizenship claims and hundreds of thousands of detainees a year.

Las November, weeks after Mr. Garza applied to be recognized as a citizen, he was picked up by immigration authorities for a fourth time and charged with illegal re-entry, a felony. Two months later, despite protests that his application for proof of citizenship was pending before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, agents for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles deportations, bused him back to Mexico.

Once again, he slipped back over the border and returned to his off-the-books job helping rebuild a Brownsville hotel for $25 a day. “I don’t go out in the street very much,” he said in March, as he awaited word about his application.

Mr. Garza’s encounters with U.S. immigration authorities illustrate how Byzantine and daunting the system is for the many poorly educated people who are thrust into it. On Jan. 9, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ordered a comprehensive review of immigration courts. “I have watched with growing concern the reports of immigration judges who fail to treat aliens appearing before them with appropriate respect and consideration,” he wrote in a a memorandum to immigration judges. “To the aliens who appear before you, you are the face of American justice.”

Illegal immigration is rampant along the border with Mexico, saddling immigration agents and judges with enormous workloads. Mr. Garza was one of a number of Mexican-born people facing deportation — no one knows how many — who may be entitled to American citizenship and don’t know it. Immigration lawyers say there may be hundreds of cases a year. Under the complicated rules governing cases like Mr. Garza’s, some foreign-born people are entitled to so-called acquired citizenship if one of their parents is American — but it depends on how long that parents has remained in the U.S.

Advocates for immigrants say border agents and immigration judges should do a better job identifying the offspring of American citizens. Crystal Willams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says she frequently fields complaints that judges ignore citizenship claims or do not adequately question detainees about their backgrounds.

Immigration officials contend the burden lies with those who face deportation. “It is not our intention to remove U.S. citizens from the U.S. at all,” says Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “But it is the responsibility of the individuals to establish that they are U.S. citizens, and that process itself can be extensive.” She declined to comment on Mr. Garza or any other individual cases.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security unit that handles citizenship applications, also declined to discuss Mr. Garza’s case. “There is nothing to protect someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen if they are unable to substantiate it,” says spokesman Bill Strassberger. “It’s unfortunate, but we see too many people making false claims in order to stay here.”

After the 9/11 terror attacks, deportations picked up, and it became more difficult for noncitizen to enter the U.S., immigration lawyers say. Those changes raised the stakes for immigrants seeking to avoid deportation, prompting more of them to claim citizenship based on their parents.

There are two ways to do so. Acquired citizenship requires a foreign-born person to prove that, at the time of his or her birth, one parents was a citizen, and that parent remained in the U.S. for a certain number of years. (Because the law has been altered over time, the number of years varies according to the birth date of the child, but is typically between five and 10.) “Derivative” citizenship allows foreign-born people to become citizens if at least one parent becomes a citizen before the child turns 18.

Immigrants seeking to establish either claim must file an N-600 application with Citizenship and Immigration Services. The number of applications rose to 55,790 in 2005, from about 26,000 in 1995, the agency said.

Mr. Strassberger of Citizenship and Immigration Services says that anyone who makes such a claim and is deported to Mexico anyway should apply for an American passport at an American consulate there. “Get that U.S. passport, hold your head high and don’t sneak across the desert in the middle of the night,” he says.

Mr. Garza spent the first eight years of his life living in Mexico. His American father, who is 59, divorced his Mexican mother shortly after Mr. Garza was born. His father, who has only a fifth-grade education, returned to the U.S. and worked for years as a laborer before suffering a disabling injury.

Mr. Garza attended school in Mexico for just six months. After he moved with his father to Texas at age 8, he says, he didn’t go to school at all. He says he has worked full-time since the age of 13, doing all sorts of odd jobs, including picking tomatoes, fixing cars, wiring homes for electricity, roofing houses, gathering chicken eggs, and harvesting tobacco.

When Mr. Garza was 16, he recalls, he crossed the border to visit an ailing grandmother in Matamoros. When he tried to return, American immigration agents turned him away because he lacked papers. He says he mentioned nothing about his father being American because he didn’t know that it mattered. Later that day, he waded and swam across the wide and shallow Rio Grande and returned home to Texas, he says.

In Brownsville, which lies at the southern tip of Texas, border agents routinely stop people on sidewalks and roadways to ask about their immigration status. If an agent has probable cause to believe someone isn’t a U.S. citizen — and that person cannot produce proof that he or she is — the agent can detain that person for possible deportation.

Immigration officials routinely send people back to Mexico repeatedly without bringing charges against them. In 1989, at age 18, Mr. Garza and six others left to go “up north” to pick tomatoes in Virginia and harvest tobacco in North Carolina. Immigration agents stopped them on the way, says Mr. Garza. Because he had no papers, he was sent back to Mexico, he says. As he was attempting to re-enter by climbing a fence that runs along parts of the border, authorities pulled him down. That fall, he says, broke his arm. Nevertheless, he sneaked back into the U.S. later that day.

For more than a decade, Mr. Garza says, he lived in the U.S. and stayed out of trouble with immigration authorities. He married a Mexican woman, fathered a son, then divorced, and his ex-wife and son returned to Mexico. He has been living for years with a brother and sister-in-law in the same house in Brownsville.

In 2001, at age 30, Mr. Garza was stopped by an immigration official while driving on a highway and was charged with illegal entry. He spent three weeks at an immigration detention center outside Brownsville before being released on bond. He says he showed up late to a subsequent hearing before an immigration judge, who had already issued a deportation notice in his absence. Once again, he was sent back to Mexico, and again, he swam back across the Rio Grande.

This cycle of deportation and re-entry might have continued for a lifetime were it not for the arrest last year in Arkansas of Mr. Garza’s brother Juan for possession of a small quantity of marijuana. Facing deportation, he hired an immigration lawyer. When the lawyer learned that Juan Garza’s father is American, he concluded that, according to the rules of acquired citizenship, his client shouldn’t be deported. And if Juan Garza was a U.S. citizen, so too were his five siblings.

Back in Brownsville, Wilfredo Garza was taken aback. He says that none of the immigration officials he dealt with over the years had ever mentioned such a thing, and his father had been unaware of the rules.

Because they have been altered over time, the specific requirements of acquired citizenship depend on the age of the foreign-born citizenship claimant. Lawyers and citizenship officers consult charts to determine who’s entitled. Hard evidence of a parent’s nationality is required. Many of those who can benefit from the law are uneducated or illiterate and, like Mr. Garza, are unaware of its existence.

Early last November, Juan Garza’s lawyer, Jaime Díez, filed N-600 applications for Juan, Wilfredo, and a third brother, José. Wilfredo Garza was lucky. His father was still alive, had a birth certificate and 17 years worth of social security earnings records, and was available to testify about his son’s life. Mr. Garza’s hopes soared. “I said, thanks to God. I’m going to stop having problems,” he recalls.

On Nov. 29, he was picked up by immigration officers and charged with illegal re-entry, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. He was placed in the county jail. His criminal lawyer, Reynaldo Cantú, argued that the government couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Garza was not American, citing his client’s pending claim for citizenship. At the request of the prosecutor, the court dismissed the charge.

Bu Mr. Garza didn’t go free. On Jan. 31, after two months in jail, he was transferred into the custody of immigration authorities. Under current law, if an alien has been deported once, he or she will automatically be deported if caught entering again — with no right to see an immigration judge. That practice began in 1996 with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which aimed to reduce illegal immigration cases clogging the courts.

Mr. Garza says he spent two days in a holding cell. “I told them seven times that I was an American citizen,” he says. Then he was put on a bus and driven to Reynosa, Mexico, about 60 miles from Matamoros. He says he slept on a park bench for two days and sold some fruit from a pushcart to earn bus fare back to Matamoros. Then, once again, he swam the Rio Grande to Texas.

In early April, Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the N-600 application of his brother José because he was unable to produce a birth certificate to buttress his claim. José Garza now hopes to take a DNA test to prove he si the son of the senior Mr. Garza, his lawyer says.

Wilfredo Garza had submitted a birth certificate. When he returned from work one afternoon in late April, he found an official-looking letter in his mailbox. Unable to read it, he hurried to Mr. Díez’s law office. In the envelope, his lawyer found a one-page form indicating that Mr. Garza’s application had been approved. It instructed him to appear at the local immigration office in Harlingen, Texas, on May 23 to pick up his certificate of citizenship.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. :