Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The marigolds, planted in homage of his native Mexico and clumped wildly next to the front porch of their southeast Roanoke home, made her cry. So did the tomatoes she discovered he’d planted — three plump, red surprises — directly behind the flowers.
Just about everything made April Urrea cry. It had been almost a month since her husband, Leo, was deported to rural Mexico. He hadn’t set foot in his home country in two decades, ever since he scrambled unlawfully across the border into Texas at the age of 14, with the help of a paid smuggler, or coyote.
The return journey to Mexico on Sept. 24, in handcuffs and shackles, had been equally arduous. After Homeland Security officials dropped him off in the border town of Matamoros, Leo said it took him five days to find his way back to his family’s small cattle farm in La Puchimita, in southwestern Guerrero, a semilawless state rife with drug cartels and citizen militias.
It took him four nights of sleeping in bus stations and endless hours of trying to conceal his Americanized accent — so people wouldn’t prey on him, thinking he had loads of cash to spare.
“People I don’t even recognize are asking me for money,” he said by phone last week. “But I am most afraid for April,” his 41-year-old disabled American wife. She’s being treated for a host of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder related to his incarceration and deportation, according to her doctor.
Leo’s been her sole support since they met in 1999 after IHOP transferred him from Brownsville, Texas, to Roanoke, where he worked for a decade as the head cook — and where the current general manager said she wants desperately to hire him back.
The Urreas made several serious legal mistakes in their quest to change his immigration status. In 12 years, they’ve spent about $5,000 filing petitions and waivers, but missed deadlines and failed to heed judicial orders, including a critical voluntary deportation order in 2007 — which ultimately resulted in his forced deportation last month. April thought she’d successfully appealed the 2007 order, but the couple said they couldn’t afford the attorney fees to follow up.
“It was lack of education,” said her Arlington-based pro bono lawyer, Orlando Gamarra, who is now arguing the case to get Leo permanent residency. “She wasted money filing many things but usually without the advice of counsel.” Leo has a sixth-grade education from Mexico, and April dropped out of Roanoke’s old School for Pregnant Teens in the early ’90s, though she eventually earned her GED.
To prove Leo’s absence creates an “extreme hardship” for his American-citizen wife should be possible, given that she now has the medical and financial documentation in spades, Gamarra said.
But whether April and the neighbors who have come to rely on the slight 35-year-old they call “Leo the Lion” can stand having him gone for the minimum six months the legal process takes is another question entirely.
* * *
They met in 1999 through April’s sister, Karen Barnette, who was working as a waitress at the IHOP where Leo worked. “She was a single mom then with three little kids, and he took that re- sponsibility on,” Barnette recalled.
He took care of several disabled neighbors and retirees, too, mowing their grass and running errands for them, and was a volunteer who helped build the southeast community garden for the Roanoke Community Garden Association.
They married in the post-9/11 environment of 2002, when immigration enforcement kicked into high gear. A temporary “fiance visa” was approved in 2004, according to Department of Homeland Security documents, and Leo also was issued a taxpayer identification number and temporary work permit. The couple mistakenly thought that was enough and admittedly then allowed several deadlines to pass that could have finalized his legal status.
A new manager at IHOP fired Leo after learning his work permit had expired in 2010. For the next three years Leo picked up construction and landscaping work, most of it under the table. Money was so tight that for eight months last year, the couple went without water and electricity.
Bill Epperly let him run a hose and an extension cord from his house next door, providing water and electricity for a lamp and space heater. “I’ve had heart attacks, back surgeries, knees replaced, and Leo does all my mowing, snow shoveling and heavy lifting,” Epperly said. “He only lets me pay him about half the time.”
When Epperly’s 24-year-old daughter, Karissa, was killed in 2009 by a hit-and-run driver, it was Leo who helped him erect a memorial at the Roanoke County crash site, affixing solar lights and a cross to a tree, then mowing and weed-eating a path near the site every three months.
“He carried my groceries for me, emptied the kitty litter,” Epperly added. “He was a little skinny runt, but he was strong as a bull.”
There are people in the neighborhood who cause problems, said community gardening activist Mark Powell, who lives across the street from the Urreas. But Leo, whose court record contains only a handful of minor traffic offenses, wasn’t one of them. “He was an asset to the community,” Powell said.
Leo helped Matt Henry deliver fliers for the Starview Heights Neighborhood Watch and volunteered his muscle for landscaping jobs, Henry said. Neighbors regularly spotted him walking to work — at the Valley View IHOP — and occasionally gave him rides. They recall him fawning over April’s 3-year-old granddaughter, Hanna, too.
“They were big family people, but they didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on money,” Henry said.
* * *
With the power intermittently out, Powell knew there’d been financial stress in the household and wasn’t surprised when he heard Leo and April had gotten into an argument Aug. 17 that led to a mild shoving match, an account verified by Leo and April, who said they were moving their refrigerator and arguing about where it should go. A neighbor who no longer lives in the area heard April crying and called police, who charged Leo with assaulting a family member.
The charge was nolle prossed in Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court last week, which means it was dropped but technically can be reinstated at a later date. “They were arguing over furniture,” said Leo’s attorney, Brad Thompson. “It sounds like an argument any of us might have, but it escalated.”
The charge wasn’t what propelled Leo into deportation proceedings. The fact that he missed a court date related to it the following Monday — he was working a construction job and thought the hearing was the next day, April said — was what landed him for four days and three nights in the Roanoke City Jail, where he was kept in holding while April tried frantically to bond him out.
At the beginning of his jail stay, his name popped up on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement roster as having an outstanding deportation order — the one from 2007.
Part of a program called Secure Communities adopted nationwide in 2010, the routine ICE checks were designed to deport immigrants who are in the country illegally, with emphasis on felons and repeat offenders. Typically, the offense that lands them in jail is not immigration-related: driving without a license, or DUI, for instance.
April and Leo say he was not permitted to shower during his entire four days in holding, nor was he given a blanket or allowed family visitors. When he appeared before a judge for his arraignment wearing the same dirty clothes, “I could smell him from the other side of the courtroom,” April said. “That ain’t right.”
“He’s a human being!” chimed in Barnette, his sister-in-law.
Roanoke Sheriff’s Office Maj. David Bell would only confirm Leo’s presence in the jail, saying the standard procedure for inmates is to be offered a shower every 48 hours. He referred further questions to Salem ICE officials, who didn’t respond to an interview request.
Without notice to his family, ICE transferred Leo to a detention facility in Farmville on Sept. 13. April rented a car to visit him three times during his 10-day Farmville stay, and she wasn’t notified before he was flown to Mexico via Washington — with only $150 in cash and the white T-shirt and jeans he’d worn in jail. (They had thankfully been washed by that time, he said.)
According to 2012 ICE statistics, more than 409,000 people were deported, more than half of whom were convicted criminals. Nonviolent immigration violators such as Leo represented 21 percent of the 2012 deportations.
* * *
“He’s such an awesome worker, we’d love to have him back,” said Chamisa Edmonds, the general manager at the IHOP at Valley View, during a recent visit with April and his sister. “Sometimes I’d leave my shift and return the next day, and he’d still be there from the day before; he hadn’t left.”
April had just dropped off paperwork to Gamarra for Leo’s upcoming interview at the U.S. Embassy in Ciudad Juarez on Oct. 31, and tearfully she told Edmonds that it would be a minimum of six months before Leo can return to Virginia — and to work. Gamarra will file documentation ahead of the interview, a waiver to forgive his unlawful presence as the spouse of an American citizen, and another to forgive his failure to voluntarily leave in 2007.
“Six months isn’t so bad,” Edmonds said, cheerfully. “Girl, hold on! At least he does get to come back. At least help is on the way.”
The next day, April spent $85 at Staples faxing her husband documents in Mexico — letters for his visa, power of attorney forms she needed signed (so she can pay their bills), and an email from Gamarra’s office assuring Leo that he would not be arrested in Juarez, contrary to the fears of his Mexican relatives, who advise him not to leave the house at night.
She included a handwritten note in the fax: “I love you. Keep this letter with you, so I’ll always be in your heart.”
“You spent $4 on a note to tell me you love me?” Leo said, touched but miffed by the superfluous expense.
“Yes,” April said, her tears finally beginning to dry. “I did.”
Staff writer Jordan Fifer contributed to this report.
Well they’re you have it folks.. Right on the damn front page – as if the Roanoke Times couldn’t find ANYTHING better to write about! Who really cares that another JOB STEALING illegal is kicked the hell outta here. This ever loving, RACE-TRAITOR, piece of trash of a White woman should be CHARGED for HARBORING an ILLEGAL and any EMPLOYERS should also be CHARGED for EMPLOYING an ILLEGAL. – What the hell is wrong with this country, that doesn’t understand the word ILLEGAL! – Perhaps we should make it OKAY if we all STOLE our daily bread, if we STOLE to make a living – because that’s what is going on here – they are STEALING our JOBS. Yeah well, the way I look at this that’s one down, 11 million more to go! But if we don’t do something NOW – he will be back in the country by the end of the month along with his entire family. Think it’s bad now, just wait. Wake the hell up America and take YOUR country BACK! Join the American Nazi Party were fighting for the White working class and nobody else is!