Why this guy?
And why this case?
"Don't you have anything else to write about?"
That was the first response from the federal prosecutor last year when I asked him about Pedro Zapeta. Government officials have been responding that way since -- to reporters, to lawyers, to people who have called their offices.
"Why are you interested in this guy?"
Mr. Zapeta, you recall, is the 39-year-old dishwasher, the illegal immigrant from Guatemala who is going mano a mano with the U.S. government. In theory, this should be one of the great mismatches of all times. Mr. Zapeta is a barely literate Mayan, who grew up speaking Quiche in a dirt-floor hut in some village called Totonicapa that even Totonicapans would have trouble locating on a map.
And the U.S. government is, of course, the U.S. government, a force as mighty as humankind has seen.
This is a fight that the soft-spoken Mr. Zapeta did not choose. Were it up to him, he would be back in his village, not washing more dishes in Stuart. But his life took an unexpected turn toward all sorts of strange things back in September 2005, when he tried boarding a plane in Fort Lauderdale with his life savings.
Through frugality only a Guatemalan immigrant could understand, Mr. Zapeta managed to save $59,000 from 10 years of washing dishes. He worked for a half-dozen Stuart restaurants, often two or three jobs at a time, never earning more than $7.50 an hour.
Two years ago, he stuffed the cash in a black duffel bag and headed for the airport. He told his family that he was coming home; they would use the money to start a business. But at the gate, Customs agents searched his bag, saw the $59,000 and confiscated it - all of it. They accused him of smuggling drug money. The law requires flyers to declare amounts of cash greater than $10,000, and Mr. Zapeta didn't fill out the form. He didn't know there was one.
Now, Mr. Zapeta is fighting the government to get his money back.
West Palm Beach lawyer Robert Gershman took the case and has stopped counting the hours he has put into it. He tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement that would require Mr. Zapeta to pay a reasonable fine but not lose all his savings. In January, Mr. Gershman argued the case to U.S. District Judge James Cohn. The judge ruled that Mr. Zapeta could keep $10,000 - the amount that needed no boarding declaration -- but would have to surrender the rest.
Mr. Zapeta said no. He said it was his money. "I earned it."
Mr. Gershman filed an appeal. Meanwhile, Mr. Zapeta's story found its way to CNN, Univision and Telemundo. People started sending checks - $10, $20, $50 with notes of support -- to Mr. Gershman's office to make up for the dishwasher's lost money. The trust fund now holds about $10,000.
In recent weeks, the government has turned up the pressure. Prosecutors, who refuse to comment publicly on the case, have told Mr. Zapeta's attorneys that they might have the IRS also confiscate that $10,000 in donations, to cover back taxes. Last month, Mr. Zapeta appeared before an immigration judge, who signed an order allowing him to stay in the country legally until the end of January. Then he must voluntarily leave, with or without his money, or be deported.
Before the hearing, a federal prosecutor asked Marisol Zequeira, Mr. Zapeta's immigration lawyer in Stuart: Why this guy?
"They don't seem to understand," Ms. Zequeira said. "This is so inherently wrong. It is an egregious injustice for the government to do this. For some reason, they don't get it."
Why should Americans care what happens to Mr. Zapeta, this one illegal immigrant out of all the millions? Why do lawyers argue his cause for free? Why does CNN send a limousine to carry him to a TV station, and why do people he'll never know send checks to his defense fund?
Because what is happening to Mr. Zapeta and his life savings is a reflection of the nation's hypocritical immigration policy. We have no problem taking an illegal immigrant's work as long as we can ignore that he's here. We have to care about Mr. Zapeta because he won't let us ignore him.
He reminds us how businesses and the consumers they serve depend on illegal immigrants to do the work Americans won't. He reminds us that the system is broken and Congress won't fix it.
We should care about Mr. Zapeta because he is the prototype of the guest worker President Bush says the nation needs: He came, he did his job, he stayed out of trouble, he tried to go back home. We should care about him because of all the restaurant diners who ate off clean plates because he was here. Were any of our sons and daughters interested in washing those plates?
We should care about Mr. Zapeta because U.S. justice is based on the belief that punishment should fit the crime. Because the nation was founded on the principle that all people should be treated fairly. Because we believe that hard work should be rewarded.
Why this guy, Pedro Zapeta? Because his treatment has been un-American.
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