LatinaLista — For 11 years, Pedro Zapeta lived the typical life of an undocumented immigrant.
He came to this country with two intentions: to work and save his money. He had no delusions about staying and building a life here â€” even though he stayed for 11 years.
For all practical purposes, he was the "ideal" undocumented immigrant. Yet, when he was ready to go home with his carefully saved money he got stopped and the government took his money.
Now, he's refusing to return to his native Guatemala without the money he had so carefully saved all these years washing dishes.
What's unbelievable is that our government which has been so intent on expelling the undocumented as quickly as possible is prolonging Zapeta's stay because they insist on keeping his money.
In the process, it's reinforcing an image that has taken root among our southern neighbors â€” the U.S. is a bully that cannot be trusted and would even steal from a lowly dishwasher.
Which sums up the crux of this issue: Is the international reputation of the United States worth $59,000?
Zapeta's problems started when he tried to get on a plane to go home. On him, he carried the whole $59,000 he had earned in 11 years.
The natural question would be why didn't he transfer this money via a bank wire sevice?
Yet when we learn a little more about Zapeta, we realize that he is not unlike many poor immigrants who come here â€” his lack of education and trust of institutions set him up to be victimized.
Because he didn't know that he was supposed to declare any amount of money over $10,000, customs officials confiscated the whole amount.
It's reported that officials automatically assumed he got the money from being a drug courier. Just exactly how they arrived at that conclusion begs to be explored further.
Thankfully, he had the pay stubs to prove that he earned every penny and that he even got a 25-cent raise when he learned to do more than just wash dishes.
One would think that would be the end of it. Give him his money, maybe subtract a few thousand for the taxes he says he never paid on his $5.50 an hour earnings, and say adios.
After all, he was paying for his own ticket home. But no, something that should be a no-brainer is turning into a public relations fiasco.
The problem is the government just doesn't realize it yet.
After customs officials seized his money and INS started deportation proceedings (again, ludicrous because the guy was ready to go home in the first place), Zapeta dug in his heels and refused to leave without his money.
In the meantime, news outlets had publicized what was happening to him and sympathizers created a trust for him, eventually depositing $10,000 into it.
But Zapeta didn't care about the trust. He just wanted the money he earned.
Federal prosecutors offered Zapeta a deal: take $10,000 from his total earnings plus another $9,000 from the donations and don't talk publicly about what happened to him and leave the country immediately.
A man spent 11 years doing nothing but manual labor. Stayed out of trouble. Saved his money so he could build a house for his mother and sisters back in Guatemala. Bought his own airplane ticket and was ready to go transfer the American Dream back to his own country and at the last minute, gets all that stolen away from him.
Why should he leave. He's within his rights to stay and fight.
Now, it seems the IRS wants its share of his money. it's reported that they want access to the donations to cover the taxes on the donations (don't quite understand that logic) and they want all his earnings when he was a dishwasher too, since he didn't pay taxes.
That those unpaid taxes would total close to $59,000, given his wages and the amount he would have gotten back had he paid taxes, just doesn't sound right.
But what sounds worse is for the government to make an example of Zapeta at a time when anti-US rhetoric is increasing and our global position is being challenged from the halls of the United Nations to round table discussons at foreign meetings.
If federal prosecutors had been so willing to let Zapeta leave the country quietly with $19,000, what would the difference had been to let him leave with a lot more of his earnings?
It's a safe bet that this incident is going to have a heftier price tag than $59,000.