In July of 2007 I was sentenced to period of six months active incarceration in Virginia’s Pamunkey Regional Jail. Due to the fact that I was convicted of multiple felonies, I was housed in a medium high security wing of the jail. I spent my time with convicted drug dealers, thieves, rapist, murderers, and due to intense overcrowding illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.
Before my incarceration, my views on immigration were blunt, unyielding, and harsh. Most easily defined as “round them up, and ship them back”. In the past few months however I have learned to believe in exceptions. Only in extreme circumstances mind you, but exceptions nonetheless.
Louis Puentes Fernandez is just such an example. A mild mannered, small man, in his mid-forties. Mr. Fernandez is living a nightmare due to government bureaucracy. Known by the jailhouse nickname of ‘Chili’, Louis Fernandez immigrated to south western Virginia when he was a year old with his family. Granted permanent resident status, Chili, has spent his entire life in the United States. Upon graduating high school, he registered for selective service, and applied for United Stated citizenship. Traveling to Washington D.C, Louis Fernandez completed the citizenship exam and interview process. Passing both and being told that the government would send him a swearing in date, Mr. Fernandez returned home to wait. As weeks turned into months, Chili questioned the government on several occasions as to his legal status. Each time he was informed to simply wait. To be patient. That sometimes these matters can take some time. A date and time will be mailed to your home.
These are all facts so far that the government makes no effort to dispute. They admit that they made a mistake and lost Mr. Fernandez’s file. And yet for the past twenty one months they have tried repeatedly to deport him. The following is the reason why: Nearly six years after applying for citizenship, Louis Fernandez was convicted of a felony. In the United States, the government can initiate deportation proceedings against anyone who is a resident alien and commits a criminal act. Mr. Fernandez’s crime, although not violent or malicious in nature was still admittedly an illegal act. While working full time, Mr. Fernandez fell off of a telephone pole and injured his back. He subsequently became addicted to prescription medications. In April of 2000, he was arrested for buying prescription medications from an undercover police investigator.
Pleading guilty to drug charges, Chili fell under investigation by the immigration and naturalization service (INS). Because of his unorthodox circumstances, Mr. Fernandez fought his deportation based on two key factors. First, since the government failed in their responsibility to fulfill his application procedure, Mr. Fernandez should have already been a full United States citizen by the time he committed his crime and therefore immune from deportation proceedings. In this defense, Chili sought to have his citizenship backdated to six months after he had completed the application and interview process.
His second defense was based on the hardship that deportation would cause. Having lived his entire life in the United States, Mr. Fernandez speaks very limited Spanish, and has children and a grandchild in Virginia. With very limited knowledge of Chili, and with no known relatives outside of this country, Mr. Fernandez would be forced into a life of poverty and despair if deported.
At his first deportation hearing, the courts ruled in favor of Mr. Fernandez. The United States immediately appealed the ruling and on appeal, Chili, was ordered to be deported. The courts ruled that although Chili was not allowed to become a citizen as he should have that if he had not committed a crime he would never have been in such a situation. In January of 2007, Mr. Fernandez took his fight to the United States fourth circuit court of appeals. Realistically this was Mr. Fernandez’s last opportunity to remain in the country. Unfortunately very few people can win against the government. The simple fact is that in order for Chili to stand a chance the government had to take responsibility for making a mistake and correct themselves. That rarely happens.
On October 6, 2007 the United States fourth circuit court of appeals, ruled once again in favor of the government. On November 1, 2007 Louis (Chili) Fernandez was deported. Now all alone in a country he does not know, he tries to make a new life having been abandoned by the country he once felt apart of. All because the government is unwilling to correct a mistake they admittedly made.