By G. Patrick Callahan, prisoner of the drug war
In the late 1970s, as guerilla war engulfed Central America and death squads like the Sombra Negra - the Black Shadow - savaged peasants throughout the region, a young dissenter named Wilfredo Crespin joined the Movimiento Liberacion Nacional de El Salvador (National Liberation Movement). The MLN promoted better living conditions, higher educational standards and greater employment opportunities - with ending the war and the killing as primary objective.
The United States, however, has a long history of suppressing idealistic aims such as these in that part of the world. From the Banana Wars of the 1930s to the present, our hemispheric policy has long been rooted in keeping the campesino's nose close to the ground. If he doesn't particularly like the taste of dirt, then we will put him beneath it. CIA trained and equipped death squads killed 130,000 El Salvadorans during this time. Entire villages disappeared.
In 1981 - when the Sombra Negra was indiscriminately fertilizing the fields and jungles with corpses of their opposition, Wilfredo Crespin and his family sold their meager possessions and fled to the United States; irony of the darkest kind. Wilfredo and his family settled in the Houston, Texas area.
Three years later two important events occurred in Wilfredo's life. He became a father, his daughter born in the USA, a bonafide citizen just like you and me. Wilfredo was also arrested for driving while under the influence. He lost his driver's license, but because he worked at far-flung construction sites, tried driving without one. Noting several citations issued for driving without a license, the State of Texas in 1990 finally put Wilfredo in jail for a few months. Released in 1991, he worked with his brother's construction firm, plastering walls and applying stucco: in short, being a productive member of society, paying taxes and raising his family.
Things were peachy until December of 1996 when Wilfredo was arrested for possession of less than half a gram of cocaine. We can't have people going around in this country with less than half a gram of cocaine even if they are gainfully employed and successfully raising a family. Wilfredo Crespin became yet another casualty of the war on drugs. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in state prison, which ultimately made it awfully pricey 'toot' for all concerned.
After his release from prison in October of 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported Wilfredo back to El Salvador in January of 1998. We don't tolerate these kinds of desperados in the USA - not even if their kids are citizens - because we're a Zero Tolerance country and damned proud of it. We like family values, too, but immigrant families don't count. You mess around like that in George W. Bush country and this is what you get. That is, if you're poor, brown and from out of town.
By the time Wilfredo got back to El Salvador, relatives relayed the terrible news that his mother was dying in Houston. His long run of bad luck continued when, crossing into Mexico, he was arrested twice and deported to El Salvador by Mexican authorities. He was unfortunate enough to make it to the United States on the third try, determined to see his mother before she died. He was immediately apprehended near the border.
In 1996 Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), an ostensible attempt to take control of a quixotic national immigration policy which in one year grants amnesty to two million illegal aliens and, in the next year, denies educational benefits to their children. The Act was passed during the high tide of the so-called 'Republican Revolution', and many aspects of the law are the Queen-of-Hearts, "off with their heads" sort of Congressional bills that have recently become the hallmark of American politics.
Much of this Act was ill conceived and badly studied with no thought given to the impact it would have upon so many people. Inevitably attached to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, the penalties meted out for simple re-entry after deportation have become grossly disproportionate to the violation itself. Where once a conviction for re-entry carried a two-year charge - which was punishment enough on the foreign national, his family and the American taxpayer's wallet - sentences are now triple and quadruple what they were before.
Quite often a captured, illegal immigrant is re-entering to be with his federally fractured family, a Hobson's Choice. It's a double bind. For example, when a head of household or other family member is deported, does the family pick up stakes and go back with him to an economically depressed country they may only remember vaguely or - in the case of children born in the USA - have never been to at all? Or do they stay and suffer separation?
Under previous law, an illegal immigrant could be deported if he or she committed one act of moral turpitude within five years of entry into the U.S. or two such acts within ten years. Even so, these judgments were made on a case-by-case basis with all mitigating and extraordinary circumstances considered. The law was fair and worked well for decades. In the pre-Sentencing Guidelines-era the United States promoted something called fundamental fairness, compassion and common sense. It took a serious felony to divide families by deportation.
It is not the case nowadays. Overzealous prosecutors now routinely push for deportation and the maximum possible sentence in every case. The Supreme Court itself has stated that family ties and responsibilities are 'discouraged factors' in determining whether downward departure from a sentence is warranted under the Sentencing Guidelines. (Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 95 (1996); (USSG §5H1.6). This overly punitive impulse is unwise, but is now firmly embedded in the criminal justice dynamic.
Wilfredo Crespin, who had a family in the United States, came north to see his dying mother - only to discover that he was too late - was ultimately sentenced to 70 months in a U.S. prison. He was sentenced under the '16 level, aggravated felony' provision in illegal re-entry cases, USSG §2L.1.2(a), with the prosecutor arguing with great flourish that Wilfredo had "an extensive criminal history". The D.U.I., the half-gram of cocaine, and citations for driving without a license - Wilfredo was made to look pretty bad.
Rather than receiving a sentence for re-entry, in other words, the prosecutor argued for and received a separate punishment based upon crimes that Wilfredo had already paid for, and in doing so, exaggerated the case by making Wilfredo appear like a hopeless career criminal. These are called sentencing 'enhancements', a euphemistic term that really means double jeopardy and is a form of federal loan sharking. The accused is always held accountable for interest accrued on his never-ending debt to society.
The grim travesty is that we seek deportation to remove allegedly undesirable 'aliens', and then prosecutors fight to keep them in U.S. custody for years and years at taxpayers' expense. Is this logical, and what purpose does it serve?
Little purpose, it seems, for if deterrence was the goal, it has failed completely.
The federal prison's transit center at Oklahoma City is filled with people in similar straits. Nearly 25% of all federal prisoners are foreign nationals, the preponderance of whom are serving excessively long sentences for petty violations and crimes long ago paid for in time lost in custody. If this unjustifiable punishment is disastrous to their families in the U.S., imagine the calamity it causes to impoverished families south of the border where no social safety nets exist. If nothing else will give one pause to consider, this sordid situation ought to.
The United States Sentencing Guidelines are brutally unfair, a living horror to a vast multitude of people, citizens and 'illegals' alike. The Guidelines have unilaterally taken discretion from judges, the most qualified to use it wisely.
They have given this discretion to prosecutors who have without exception proven pitiless, inflexible and irrational. Over five and half years in prison for a man like Wilfredo Crespin is not merely unjust, and an enormous waste of taxpayer's money, it is a national disgrace.
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