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U.S. deports Mexican `gringo' to strange homeland

Humberto Fernandez immigrated illegally 39 years ago. There's little chance he can rejoin his family in Utah.

December 03, 2006|Olga R. Rodriguez | Associated Press Writer

CUAUHTEMOC, MEXICO — Humberto Fernandez keeps his clothes in plastic bags and boxes, trying to convince himself that his two-year stay in this town of cattle ranchers and apple farmers is temporary.

Deported from the United States 39 years after he entered it illegally, Fernandez's hopes of a quick return to his wife and son in Utah were crushed when the U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld his deportation and barred him from seeking legal U.S. residence.

He clings to the chance of a consular waiver, which would allow him back in as a special case because of the hardship to his U.S. family, 1,000 miles away in Ogden.

In Cuauhtemoc, his broken Spanish and Americanized ways have made him an outsider.

"That's my country," Fernandez said of the United States. "That's where I spent most of my life. I don't want to be here. I want to be with my family."

For people on either side of the immigration debate, Fernandez could be used as a poster child for the system's failings. Although he is culturally American, the U.S. government has deported him three times. Yet he managed to build a full life in the United States without being a legal resident.

Now, as the U.S. tightens immigration laws, there are many like Fernandez who, after a lifetime in the United States, are being sent back to countries they don't know.

Deportations have been increasing as the United States cracks down on immigrants caught in raids or arrested for crimes or other offenses. Over the last decade, Central America has been flooded with deported gang members, many of whom went to the United States as infants and don't speak Spanish.

In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 186,600 illegal immigrants were deported, nearly four times more than in 1995 -- the year before a new law mandating the expulsion of illegal immigrants who return illegally after being deported.

Fernandez, 54, was born in Cuauhtemoc but says he ran away from home at age 13 to escape poverty and a physically abusive father. Two years later, he crossed illegally into the U.S. by claiming he was a U.S. citizen.

He lived in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado. He was deported once for driving illegal immigrants from Arizona to Idaho for a smuggler in the 1970s, again for failing to mention his previous deportation when applying for residency in Wyoming, and finally after he drove with a broken taillight and had no papers to show police.

He was never charged for driving the illegal immigrants, and other than immigration violations and minor traffic infractions, he has no criminal record.

He returned illegally to the United States in 1981, and after years of leading a nomadic life settled in Ogden, where he met his American wife, Rita Fernandez. They raised a boy, now 17.

"There I clung to life, to a beautiful life," Humberto Fernandez said, holding back tears.

He bought a small two-bedroom house and worked as a truck driver for a metal salvage company. In 2003, he'd saved enough to buy his own semi.

Two months later, he was arrested at the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Salt Lake City as he applied for a green card based on his marriage. Officials detained him because he had been deported before, and on Sept. 9, 2004, after a year in a Utah jail, Fernandez was sent to Mexico.

Pro bono lawyers took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 1996 law mandating deportation of people caught reentering the U.S. illegally didn't apply because he had entered more than a decade before the law was passed.

The court disagreed, ruling in June that the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act revoked Fernandez's right to appeal the final deportation order.

The ruling affects thousands of illegal immigrants who were deported, leaving behind U.S.-born children or wives. They have lost most legal means of seeing their families north of the border.

"We had hoped the law would change, not only for my husband, but for so many families who have been torn apart," Rita Fernandez said by telephone.

When Humberto Fernandez left Cuauhtemoc, the streets were unpaved and Indian men from nearby villages came to buy supplies wearing nothing but loincloths. He returned to a city of 150,000 where horses share the road with pickup trucks.

A sister he had seen only twice in 40 years took him in.

"I received him full of joy, with open arms," Carmen Fernandez said. "The truth is, I really didn't know him."

Unemployed, Humberto Fernandez wasn't able to help out, and his sister chafed when he reprimanded her rebellious teenage son. After two months, neighbors gave him a spartan room in exchange for help running errands.

He cut his shoulder-length hair and exchanged his baseball cap for a cowboy hat, changing his image in an effort to find a job.

He found work as a driver at an apple orchard earning $60 for a six-day workweek. That's just enough to pay a doctor and buy his arthritis medication, he said. In the U.S., he said, he earned as much as $1,000 a week.

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