[News] Migrant must go, and $49,000 stays, U.S. says
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Oct 10 19:14:34 EDT 2007
Posted on Wed, Oct. 10, 2007
Migrant must go, and $49,000 stays, U.S. says
BY ANA MENENDEZ
After nine years of washing dishes, Pedro Zapeta managed to save
$62,000. Then he lost most of it overnight. Not to addiction or
street thugs. To the U.S. government.
Customs agents confiscated $59,000 of Zapeta's money when he tried to
board a plane home to Guatemala (he had another $3,000 in his
pockets) in 2005. It's not illegal to take that much money out of the
country. But it's illegal not to report it on a special form. Zapeta
didn't know that. He's not a frequent flyer.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge James Cohn levied a heavy
civil penalty for Zapeta's mistake: $49,000. Zapeta was graciously
allowed to keep the remainder of his earnings. Then he was kicked
out. He has until January to leave the country.
Exhausted and bewildered, Zapeta wants to go -- but not without his
money, which everyone agrees he acquired through honest labor.
''You can imagine the great effort it took me to earn that money and
when they took it, it caused me a great sadness,'' Zapeta told me in
Spanish. ``But I know there is a God who is great and good, and I
know he is looking down and will help me.''
Zapeta's story, initially reported by the Palm Beach Post, exploded
after CNN recently ran a segment on him. By this week, dozens of
bloggers were weighing in from Omaha to Denmark.
Reaction ranged from the sentimental to the outright vicious. That's
because a simple story of outrage is muddied by the circumstances of
Zapeta's arrival in the United States: In 1996, Zapeta admits, he
entered the country illegally through the Texas frontier. Later, he
bought a fake Social Security number for $25.
He spent the next decade working -- sometimes 13 hours a day --
scrubbing dishes and pots in Stuart restaurants. He never filed an
income tax return, but some of his pay stubs show that his employers
took taxes from his wages, says his attorney, Robert Gershman. Zapeta
rode his bike to work and lived quietly. He labored hard at tedious
work and earned his pay.
None of that satisfies the few embittered nativists who (lacking
imagination as well as heart) have copied the same screed from site
to site: ``Deport Pedro Zapeta Sans $59,000.''
Sure. And while we're at it, let's round up speeders and impound their cars.
Fortunately, the hate-mongers are outclassed by those who know the
punishment is way out of proportion to the crime. One blogger quoted
scripture: ''The wages you withheld from the worker who mowed your
fields cry out, and the cries of the worker reach the ears of the
Lord of hosts.'' Another offered to trade Guatemala one for one:
''Lou Dobbs for Pedro Zapeta. We'd be getting the better end of the
deal.'' An Oregan man wrote his representatives on Zapeta's behalf:
``So deduct the taxes, give the man his money and deport him,
although we could use more people like him.''
Since his story became public, people have donated $10,000, which his
attorney is keeping in trust.
Part of the outpouring is due to Zapeta's sad story. His break across
the frontier was motivated by the kind of poverty that most Americans
can't understand. His hard life here was sustained by the hope of one
day returning to Guatemala to build a home for his mother and four
sisters. For 11 years, he carted his money around in a bag, afraid to
wire any of it. ''I thought I'd take it with me all at once,'' he
told me. ``My only regret is that I've stained my name here.''
The ''crime'' he's being punished for is not illegal immigration.
It's a bureaucratic technicality meant to catch drug dealers and
smugglers, of which he is neither. We can disagree all we want on
immigration policy; it takes an especially hateful nature to argue
that a man is not entitled to his wages.
But there's another appeal to Zapeta's story. At a time when most
Americans are deep in the red and the national debt rises by more
than $1 billion a day, Pedro Zapeta may be the last man on earth who
still embodies the great American ideal of thrift and hard work.
He never owned a car, rode his bike everywhere and denied himself
every luxury beyond rent and electricity. If Zapeta were wise to the
ways of popular culture, he'd pitch a self-help book: How to Think
and Grow Rich on Minimum Wage.
Zapeta doesn't care about any of that. He just wants to get home to
his family. That's understandable. But I think the authorities should
Anyone who can amass $62,000 in nine years should be forced to stay
here and teach the rest of us how to do it.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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