Truckee support helps free man from immigrant detention center | SierraSun.com

Truckee support helps free man from immigrant detention center

David Bunker, Sierra Sun
Photo by Josh Miller, Sierra SunTruckee High graduate Jose Vazquez talks at his home in Reno about an 11-month ordeal that almost landed him in Mexico, the country of his birth. Vazquez, 23, has been a legal U.S. resident since the age of 6.
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Answering a phone call from a Reno police detective on Friday, April 5 of last year, Truckee High graduate Jose Vazquez figured he had nothing to worry about.

But as the detective, who later identified himself as an Immigration and Naturalization Services officer, handcuffed him in a Reno parking lot and drove him to the Reno jail, Vazquez knew that something had gone terribly wrong.

Vazquez’s April arrest was the beginning of an 11-month journey through courtrooms and desert detention centers that ended only three weeks ago with his release.

For those 11-months, Vazquez, a legal permanent resident, faced deportation to a country he has no recollection of, and separation from his tight-knit family and his fiancee. In the end, what saved him were the dozens of letters of support from people like the Tahoe Truckee High School principal and managers of the Sierra Nevada Children’s Services, and the unending backing of his fiancee and Truckee family.

For 23-year-old Vazquez, facing deportation was perplexing. He came to the United States from Mexico when he was 6, and knows nothing besides the American way of life. With sandy-colored hair, greenish-blue eyes and perfect English, Vazquez seems an unlikely candidate for government expulsion. His mother is a Truckee reflexologist and counselor involved in both Sierra Nevada Children Services and La Communidad Unida. His father has been an employee of North Tahoe Marina for more than 15 years.

“I grew up as an American. I never thought of myself as a non-American,” said Vazquez. “It would have been different if I grew up down there.”

It all started in April 2001, when Vazquez and a friend stopped in for some late-night shopping at Scolari’s Market in Reno. The pair decided to play a prank on a cashier they knew at the store. Spotting a crawl space at the back of the store, his friend crawled above the ceiling tiles in search of a vent to yell down at the cashier.

Vazquez maintains he never followed his friend, but remained below in the store. While crawling through the attic space, his friend stepped through a ceiling tile, breaking it and setting off an audible alarm, Vazquez said. Both Vazquez and his friend remained composed, bought the groceries that they had come to get, and left the store.

The next morning the police showed up at the friends’ house and arrested them. Vazquez was embarrassed by the whole situation, and frightened when the public defender said that he could end up spending several years in jail if convicted of burglary. The charges marched ahead, even though a police report referenced the store manager as saying that, “nothing appeared to be disturbed” in the section of the store where the tile was broken.

Unwilling to miss work by going to court, and afraid that a conviction would put him in jail, Vazquez took the advice of his public defender and pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor of “conspiracy to commit burglary.”

“We were just trying to bury it and say, ‘hey, lets get it over with,'” said Vazquez. “That was the advice from the public defender too. She said, ‘just sign it.'”

The plea meant no jail time, and a monthly check-in with a probation officer for one year. Vazquez thought that the whole thing was behind him.

But a combination of stricter immigration enforcement after Sept. 11 and the passage of several new immigration laws, almost landed Vazquez on a deportation bus to Nogales, Mexico.

The INS picked Vazquez up in 2003 on a new law that said any non-citizen, guilty of a year sentence or longer, could be deported.

“The public defender never said, ‘hey, you’re deportable if you sign this [plea bargain],'” said Vazquez. “That’s the last place I saw myself is being deported.”

After the INS officer brought him to the Reno jail in April of 2003, Vazquez spent several hours shackled in a bus as they loaded up passengers in Sacramento, Livermore, Stockton and Oakland. Finally, he boarded an old U.S. Marshall plane bound for a desolate detention center outside of Eloy, Ariz.

After getting out on bail a week later, he returned to his job as a TV and stereo system installer in Reno. But following a June 12 court appearance in Reno, the INS once again hauled him off to the Eloy facility under a newly passed law that bars non-citizens, guilty of a one-year sentence or more, from posting bail.

“I am walking out [of the courtroom], an INS officer grabs me and says, ‘We’re revoking your bail. You’re going back,'” said Vazquez.

Once again he endured the shackled bus ride and long plane flight to Eloy.

The 750- bed immigration detention center in Eloy houses Filipinos, Fijians, Laotians, Cambodians, Mexicans and Central Americans who are all awaiting deportation hearings. No one at the center could believe that Vazquez was Mexican.

“Everybody thought that I was Canadian,” said Vazquez. “Even some of the Russian guys came up to me speaking Russian.”

In the center, Vazquez made friends with Randy, a Laotian who saw his sister shot to death right in front of him in Laos before coming to the United States.

Vazquez remembers a few of his fellow detainees: a one-legged amputee who shuffled around the center in crutches and a 70-year-old man.

“I know that a lot of those people shouldn’t be there,” said Vazquez. “They’re getting separated from their kids, their families, their wives.”

A 31-year-old Korean man, adopted by a U.S. family at the age of three, was deported to Korea during Vazquez’ time there.

“He doesn’t know a word of Korean and he got sent back,” said Vazquez.

A desert detention center was not the site that Vazquez would have picked for his wedding. But under advice from his attorney, Vazquez and his fiancee Jennifer Kilborn were married by the detention center’s chaplain, with a guard standing by as witness.

“Another reason I did it was if I did get deported she was going to come with me no matter what,” said Vazquez. “I got to sit with her for a half an hour afterwards, so it wasn’t anything big. It wasn’t ideal.”

All during his time at Eloy, Kilborn had been tirelessly writing letters. She wrote President George Bush, state senators, the state attorney general, and the governors of Arizona and Nevada.

Meanwhile, Vazquez’s mom, Margarita “Monina” Vazquez, had contacted Nevada County Supervisor Barbara Green, who called California Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. Boxer’s office responded quickly, but could not affect a case already winding its way through the judicial system.

Just three weeks after his release, Vazquez sits in the upstairs of the suburban Reno house where he lives. On his lap is a stack of letters and documents several inches thick. There are letters of support from police and probation officers, employers, a landlord, Truckee High School teachers and principals and next-door neighbors.

“The letters are pretty much what saved me,” said Vazquez. “It showed me how much support I have when things get bad”

On Dec. 12, the judge gave Vazquez good news. Referencing the letters of support, and the 11 family members in attendance, he ordered Vazquez be released. But the district attorney appealed the decision, and not until that appeal was denied two and a half months later on March 1, was Vazquez finally free to go.

“…our family was in pain all those months,” said Monina Vazquez.

Monina was so glad for the support of the Truckee community that she threw a big party for all of the Truckee locals that helped get her son released from the detention center.

“There were so many people supporting us and praying for my son,” she said. Monina said how thankful she was for the support of the community and her immediate family.

About 40 supporters and letter-writers showed up at the Sunday party, and Truckee High School Principal Michael Finney, and Nevada County District 5 Supervisor Barbara Green were there.

“It’s hard to believe that such a nice person … they put him through such awful stuff,” said Green. “I was so impressed with how happy and united the family was.

“There was a lot of love in that house,” added Green. “You could feel it the minute you walked in.”