Antonio Ramirez lived for 37 years in America, nearly all of them in the metro-east.
A legal immigrant from Mexico, Ramirez earned a living driving trucks and operating construction cranes. He married, raised a family and did not have a criminal record.
But everything changed when someone offered him $1,000 to drive a 1987 Ford van from Los Angeles to St. Louis.
The van, as it turned out, contained marijuana.
Forty-five packets of it were carefully shrink-wrapped, 107 pounds in all, and hidden under compartments above the wheel wells.
A police officer discovered the pot following a traffic stop in eastern Arizona.
Ramirez denied any knowledge of the contraband cargo. But later, on the advice of a public defender, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of transporting marijuana.
Now Ramirez, 56, is living back in Mexico, having been deported, while his family remains in the Fairmont City and Collinsville area.
He is trying to do the near impossible -- undo his deportation and return home.
"I need to come back," Ramirez said, speaking to a reporter by telephone from his native province of Zacatecas, 1,500 miles to the south. "America is my home."
On June 10, U.S. immigration officials picked up Ramirez at a federal lockup in Missouri's Bootheel, where he had spent more than a year, and deported him to Mexico.
More than 80,000 immigrants are expected to be deported from the United States in 2005. They face a minimum of 10 years' wait before they can apply for re-entry.
His hopes of returning to the United States hinge on his efforts to set aside the drug charge he was convicted of in December 2003.
Meanwhile, a similar strategy soon could pay off for Maria Perez, 42, of Collinsville.
Perez had been locked up in the same jail where Ramirez had lived -- the Mississippi County Detention Center, in Charleston, Mo. -- for the past 11 months before being released Friday after posting $5,000 bond.
She's been fighting a federal immigration judge's order to deport her to her native Chile because of her guilty plea to cocaine possession. Immigration agents arrested Perez and put her in jail in September, after she had completed her probation on the drug conviction.
Like Ramirez, Perez said she had pleaded guilty only on the advice of her lawyer, who didn't realize the immigration consequences of a guilty plea.
But in June, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals remanded Perez's case to the immigration court judge who had ordered her deported. Her hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday in a federal office building in downtown St. Louis.
Belleville lawyer Neal Connors, who is now representing Perez, said prospects look good this time around for the judge to cancel the deportation order and authorize her release from jail.
"We're in the doorway and we're ready to run through," Connors said.
The Odds Of Re-Entry
Antonio Ramirez's battle to return to the United States spotlights the quandary that faces jailed immigrants who fight deportation orders.
Like Ramirez, they can allow themselves to be deported to their home countries and escape incarceration in the U.S.
But such a strategy has a big downside: Immigrants convicted of drug crimes are rarely granted waivers to re-enter the United States.
"It's virtually impossible," said Marshall Fitz, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.
The other option is for jailed immigrants to fight deportation from jail, even if it means spending months or years in jail on the criminal charge.
That's been the tactic pursued by Perez, who said she never considered giving up her fight to remain in the United States, which has been her home since she fled Chile with her family 29 years ago.
If she leaves, she risks never again seeing her 12-year-old son or 14-year-old daughter, who live with her parents in Fairmont City.
"I did it for my kids," said Perez, who insists that the bag of cocaine residue a Collinsville Police officer found in a trash can did not belong to her.
For the Ramirez family, the past year as been difficult.
Teresa Avila, 52, of Fairmont City, is the younger sister of Antonio Ramirez, as well as a close friend of Maria Perez, whose elderly parents live only a few blocks away.
The unsuccessful legal effort to halt her brother's deportation has proved draining, both emotionally and financially. Her family still owes his former attorneys in St. Louis more than $5,000.
Avila spoke in halting English and often turned to her niece Daisy, 16, to serve as a translator.
Daisy Avila criticized the federal law that required the automatic deportation of her uncle.
"Everybody has different circumstances," she said.
A product of reforms that Congress passed in 1996, the law gives the federal government wide powers to lock up and deport noncitizens convicted of even minor crimes.
As a result, federal immigration judges have lost most of their discretion in determining whether defendants deserved a second chance, said Fitz, the immigration lawyers spokesman.
"We certainly would love to see a return to some type of balance where the equities of a given situation can be considered," said Fitz, adding the law "sweeps too broadly."
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in Washington, D.C., argued against the softening of federal statutes governing immigration.
"It's not the American people's problem," Krikorian said. "It is the criminals who created the situation, and they bear the exclusive responsibility for whatever problems their families are facing."
Ramirez is basing his effort to return to America on the same strategy used by Perez: getting a judge to toss out his original guilty plea.
In January 2004, a judge in Arizona sentenced Ramirez to five months' probation and allowed him to return to Illinois after he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of transporting marijuana for sale.
Five months later, though, federal agents arrested him after he registered with the Madison County probation office in Edwardsville. The agents whisked Ramirez off to the jail in Mississippi County, Mo., his home from May 2004 to June of this year.
Ramirez argued that his court-appointed lawyer in Arizona had failed to inform him that he faced automatic deportation because of the guilty plea.
"If I knew that, then I wouldn't have pleaded guilty," he said. He now is represented by Neal Connors, too.
Perez, in contrast, had successfully used the same argument earlier this year before a Madison County judge.
But on two key points, the differences between Ramirez's and Perez' situation could make all the difference:
In Ramirez's situation, prosecutors in Navajo County, Ariz., have already successfully opposed Ramirez's first effort to overturn his drug conviction.
Connors, his attorney, acknowledged Ramirez faces long odds in trying to set aside his guilty plea, thereby erasing the grounds for the deportation order. But achieving that goal will require help from a lawyer in Arizona, Connors said.
"My strategy is to get with (Ramirez's) family to examine the economics of getting a good Arizona firm involved in retrying this case," Connors said. "He needs a new trial."
Undeterred, Ramirez promised to continue his battle to return to his home and life in Madison County.
"I just want to see my family again," he said.
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