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In jail, his crimes far behind him, Pablo waits

Columbia, Mo.

Don’t try to talk to Pablo Ureta about patience. He’s had about all he can take.

Pacing the floor of his tiny cell in the Shawnee County Jail in Topeka, Kan., he thinks about his 5-year-old son, whom he hasn’t seen since he left home on May 24. He thinks of his wife, whom he is desperately afraid of losing. He thinks of his mother, who has worked tirelessly for his freedom since the day he lost it.

He thinks of finding an easy way to end it all -- and then he feels ashamed. But no matter how hard he thinks, he can’t find a reason to justify what has happened to him.

“This is supposed to be America 2002, New Millennium America,” said Ureta in a recent telephone interview from jail. “You should at least have your day in court.”

Ureta, who was born in Uruguay, is one of an estimated 75,000 immigrants who await an uncertain future in the nation’s jails and holding centers under the mandatory deportation provisions of a stringent anti-immigrant law that passed in 1996. He has no right to bail or a public hearing. His judge has no authority to allow him to stay -- despite the family he will leave behind, and despite a flawless record of seven years.

Since 9/11, immigrant advocates say, local Immigration and Naturalization Services offices have stepped up enforcement of this law. Three federal courts have ruled some of its provisions to be unconstitutional, a denial of due process. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in June to take on the case. But by the time it gets to court, it will be far too late for Ureta.

Ureta looks like what he always wanted to be: a normal, average American guy. He doesn’t speak with an accent. He doesn’t even remember his native language. Ureta grew up here -- he played on the same playgrounds, went to the same mall, was on the same soccer team as anyone else in his class in Columbia, Mo.

Ureta came to the United States from Uruguay when he was 8 years old, three years after the death of his father. Nancy Malugani, his mother, brought her three children to the United States when the United Nations offered her a veterinary fellowship. Uruguay was then, as now, torn by political and economic problems, and Malugani decided to stay here and raise her children. She got a job as a Spanish teacher in a junior high school in Columbia, became active in the community, bought a house and created a life for herself and her children.

Ureta would be the first to admit that, as a teenager, he was no angel. He ran around with the wrong crowd, he experimented with drugs and occasionally sold them. He became involved with a group of older men who were transporting and selling marijuana.

But when he was 19, Ureta learned that he was going to become a father, and his life took a dramatic turn. That realization served as a wake-up call, giving him the strength to break his ties with his old friends and with the dealers he had been hanging around with. He married the mother of his son, who had been his sweetheart since junior high school. He got a minimum-wage job at a grocery store. Soon he found a good job in St. Charles, Mo., installing telecommunications equipment. He moved there with his family, and they started a new life.

But Ureta’s past continued to haunt him. Four years after he cut ties with the dealers, law enforcement officials showed up on his doorstep with an indictment. On the advice of his lawyer, he pleaded guilty to being involved in a conspiracy to transport marijuana across state lines. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 months in a federal prison.

Ureta came home from prison a quieter man, more introspective, even more dedicated to making a good life for his family. He returned to work at the telecommunications company. He eventually decided he wanted to get an electrician’s license, and he was told he would need to get his immigration papers updated in order to go to school to get his license.

Ureta had never heard of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a hard-line initiative of the anti-immigrant lobby that laid the groundwork for the destruction of thousands of families across the United States.

Ureta’s boss, Don Ross, has become a sort of mentor to Ureta, and has joined with the family in trying to secure his release. He wishes the young man had consulted with him before he decided to take the day off and get his papers in order.

“I’d have suggested he wait until things cool down,” Ross said.

But Ureta didn’t have a clue what awaited him when he decided to renew his green card. On May 24, he kissed his wife goodbye and headed to Kansas City to get his papers in order. He never came home.

Now Ureta sits in jail, awaiting the hearing with an INS judge that will determine his fate. Uruguay might as well be Siberia as far as Ureta is concerned. He doesn’t speak Spanish and there is little hope that he will find a job in a country in the midst of an economic disaster. He has no family or friends in Uruguay to help him there. His wife has no plans to accompany him, should he be deported. His 5-year-old son doesn’t begin to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Ureta’s five partners in crime were convicted, served their time and went on with their lives. One of them possessed a gun.

Ureta was never linked with any violence. He was never even caught in possession of marijuana. His lawyer didn’t know that pleading guilty to a felony would obliterate his client’s right to live in the United States. The law hadn’t passed yet. But since it was retroactive, it applied to Ureta’s case, as well as to thousands of other legal residents whose crimes had been committed years ago.

Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, immigrants who are convicted of a wide range of nonviolent infractions are classified as aggravated felons.

Ureta’s family searched all over the country before finally finding a lawyer who would agree to take the case; most refused, calling it hopeless. Finally Malugani discovered Brian Lerner of Carson, Calif., a high-priced specialist who has taken numerous cases like Ureta’s. The legal costs will be at least $10,000 -- easily double that if there is an appeal.

Lerner’s hopes are pegged on two possibilities: One, which is exceedingly remote, is that Missouri Gov. Bob Holden or President George Bush will grant a pardon. Ureta’s friends and family are collecting signatures on a petition with the hope that Holden will issue such a pardon -- even though it is not clear that he even has jurisdiction in a federal case like this one.

The other hope lies in the halls of Congress, where a bill called the Family Reunification Act is slowly wending its way through the political process. The bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee in July, would give judges the right to consider the defendant’s family situation and the circumstances of his case.

Ureta was scheduled for a hearing before an administrative judge with the INS on Sept. 9. His lawyer pleaded for an extension to give time to see whether the law would pass. Despite the prosecutor’s argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for another six weeks in jail, the judge agreed to the extension, noting that Ureta’s case was one of thousands. “I don’t think holding this person for six weeks is going to make much difference,” he noted dryly as he signed the extension.

Malugani left the hearing hopeful that the next six weeks would bring release for her son and other immigrants.

But Ureta is beside himself with grief; he doesn’t feel he can wait another day.

“I’m tired of being strong,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “I want to be normal. I just want to go back home, work my job, come home to my family. That’s all I have been wanting for six years now.”

Tracy L. Barnett is the managing editor of Adelante, a bilingual Latino newsmagazine, and an adjunct assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002