Mention of the name “Chico” meant nothing to Stephanie. With the evening’s drama surrounding her rambunctious middle daughter, she nearly forgot why Rupert wanted to call her so late at night. And yet, when the phone chirped and his face appeared, nerves raced up her legs and congregated in her stomach.
“Hey,” she said quietly, just louder than a whisper, but quiet enough to avoid any unwanted teenaged listeners who might awaken suddenly.
“I hope I’m not…”
“No,” Stephanie cut him off. “It’s fine. I barely sleep anymore.”
“Me too,” said Rupert, pausing awkwardly and then transitioning into his lawyer voice. “Did the name Chico ring a bell at all?”
Stephanie thought further, but couldn’t recall any mention of such a name.
“Senator Sanchez’s source in the FBI traced your husband’s fake ID to a black-market illegal identity dealer named Chico Dominquez, who’s made a career out of helping illegal immigrants obtain valid federal identification numbers and then blackmailing them into paying him for his silence.”
Rupert went on the explain how Chico had amassed a list of actual Social Security numbers from South American immigrants who had gained citizenship through amnesty programs and then passed away at untimely ages. He had obtained some of the valid numbers from gang members who had been killed in street violence. He added others from everyday middle-aged men and women who died in car accidents or from unfortunate illnesses, typically under the age of 50, when Social Security payments would potentially go into effect.
His scheme was to immediately contact the widows or surviving heads of the families to offer them a lump sum payment for exclusive use and ownership of the Social Security number of their deceased relatives. Chico’s offer gave the immediate benefit of a quick cash payout compared to the slow, painful wait and administrative burden of following up with the plodding U.S. Government to coordinate any meager payout the family deserved.
In some cases, finding the surviving family to be poorly educated or unaware of United States policies relative to deceased family members, he was able to simply ask for the number or misrepresent himself as an agent of the federal government, tasked with handling paperwork and coordination of benefits.
In some cases, all he had to do was level with the family, weave a sad story about how he wanted to help struggling immigrants earn a chance at a better life and convince his victims to “donate” their federal ID numbers to his cause.
Chuck’s parents engaged Chico to obtain a Social Security number transfer for themselves and their son, Carlos, nearly 40 years earlier. They revisited Chico every ten years to get new falsified passports and State of Texas driver’s licenses based on their assumed Social Security numbers.
But, as much as Chico’s service provided benefit, it came at a steep price. Chuck’s parents exhausted much of their moderate family savings on payments in exchange for his silence. Keeping tabs on Chuck and his other clients through social media and the occasional unannounced visit, Chico exacted blackmail payments from many of his victim clients. The more successful, affluent and embedded into the fabric of the American society and culture they grew, the more susceptible they became to Chico’s threats of exposure.
Stephanie listened quietly to Rupert’s explanation of Chico’s scam, anger stewing just beneath her calm exterior. Having recently dug into their finances and attempted to make sense of her husband’s organization system, she noticed strange expenses such as magazine subscriptions she had never seen in the house, dues to professional organizations she was sure he never joined and purchases of items they never received. Most of all, she saw large cash transfers to what she believed to be his mothers’ bank account to support her convalescence. But it all fell under suspicion in her mind now. Stephanie wondered which, if any, of her husband’s actions she could trust. Like the crashing of a tidal wave, she questioned the entire foundation of her marriage to the man that she felt, at this point, she barely knew or recognized.
“He must have been making payments,” Rupert said. “From what the investigator could tell, his parents were left completely broke. With no assets to her name and a lack of a paper trail to Chuck, the care of his mother fell completely to the state.”
Stephanie held back her initial reaction in fear that she might burst into an expletive-laden trail of rage. She held her comments to herself and allowed silence to take control of the conversation. But Rupert continued with more bad news.
“I’m going to have to find a creative legal way to stop the state from coming after your assets now that they know Chuck’s mother has a son and a family of in-laws.”
“Jesus,” Stephanie said, unable to hold back. “How much?”
“God damn Chuck,” Stephanie muttered in the dark of their bedroom. “They could come after our savings, the college funds, the house?”
“I’m not going to let that happen,” Rupert said, his voice as calming as possible. “We’ll figure this out together.”
Stephanie thanked Rupert and wished him luck in his proceedings with his wife. Rupert apologized again for sharing his personal business with her, but she laughed it off
“I guess we both have problems with our spouses in common,” she said with a hint of a chuckle, the most relaxed comment she made all night.
After wishing him a good evening and pretending to scold him for staying up so late, she held the phone and hovered her thumb over the keypad, clicking the little red button to hang-up. She felt reluctant to end the conversation and return to the lonely cavernous bedroom by herself. Something about the sound of another voice comforted her. It allowed her to escape from the struggle in her mind to rationalize Chuck’s deception against the image of the forthright and upstanding husband she knew until the beginning of the week.
The blinking red light from the answering machine across the room caught her attention and she decided to clear the message first before attempting to wind down and sleep.
As Britney described earlier in the evening, a cheerful female voice introduced herself by some random name that Stephanie had never heard and asked for Mrs. Nomo. Just before clicking the button to erase the message, the woman gave her title, “Special Liaison to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.”
At the sound of the phrases “U.S. Embassy” and “Mexico City”, Stephanie’s heart raced as if she were having a heart attack.
“We spoke directly with your husband,” the woman said. “A Mr. Charles Nomo, and we wanted to pass on a message from him that he is safe and adjusting to his new life in Reynosa, Mexico. He wanted us to inform you that he greatly misses his family and will try to establish direct communication as soon as he can.”
She went on to leave a contact number and wish the Nomo family “all the best”.
Stephanie lay in bed, her heart pounding and her eyes frozen open. She twitched in simultaneous exhaustion and exhilaration. Relief washed over her body and dulled her hyperactive nerves at the thought that Chuck was safe.
“I’ve got to call Rupert back,” she thought, unhooking her phone from the power cord.
The display read 1:42am. She put the phone back and uttered a single word to herself before slumping her head into the plush pillow behind her neck.
Emily awoke early on Monday morning. Like her mother, she couldn’t sleep for long stretches either. The buzzing hum of Ashley’s hair-dryer filled the house with the grating sound of forced hot air rushing through a narrow opening. The ugly din lasted an inordinate amount of time while Britney soaked in the escape of a long, hot shower.
Emily downed her toasted frozen waffles and checked her homework tucked neatly into her backpack as her mother sat at the table across from her on hold.
“Yes, I’ll wait,” she said every few minutes as the assistant checked with her.
Ashley blew down the stairs like a winter wind and injected a frozen waffle into the toaster. Britney ambled down the stairs with her keys jingling and rooted through the front hall closet for her jacket.
“Yes, this is Stephanie Domo,” Stephanie said, waving to her girls as they gathered their backpacks and prepared to commute to school together. “My husband is Charles Domo. I have a 4:45 appointment with Senator Sanchez and my attorney today regarding his deportation case, but my attorney is not able to make the meeting and asked if I could cancel for today. I’ll call back once I know when a better time would be, hopefully tomorrow.”
As she exited the house, Emily looked over her shoulder at her mother, sitting alone at their kitchen table.
“Bye mom,” she said. “Try to have a good day, ok?”
Stephanie looked up, her face moving from a faraway gaze to a softer focus.
“Thank you honey,” she replied. “You too.”
Chuck sat in the hotel’s kitchen late at the end of the day. His hands throbbed from moving from room to room filling notches and grooves in the trim, the bedposts, the doorways and the restaurant tables and chairs. Sometimes he used wax and coffee with vinegar, sometimes, with lighter grains, he used tea with lemon juice and other times with deeper gouges, he rubbed almonds or pecans over the crevasses to fill them in with nut meat. He even used peanut butter.
Mr. Casteneda followed him around the hotel for a while, pointing out the imperfections, before gaining enough trust in his new employee to leave him alone to find all the blemishes on his own.
In addition to earning room and board for his work, Chuck requested access to a phone that could connect to an international number. Mr. Casteneda initially balked at the idea, calling it “very expensive”, but later agreed to give him 10 minutes at the end of the week if he performed well on his assigned tasks.
Chuck managed to say “gracias” to Mirabella for her assistance numerous times. Mr. Casteneda helped interpret a short conversation with her in which he complimented her on her smart and helpful son and told her how nice her home was. After his third “gracias”, customers entered the store and he left her to her work.
Later in the evening, as Chuck wrapped two Mexican coins in felt and glued them to the bottom of a wobbly table, he noticed the “Cerrado” sign, meaning “Closed”, stretched across the locked door and wondered where Mirabella had gone.
“Did she go home for the night?” Chuck asked the hotel owner, not entirely sure why he took such interest in her whereabouts. “It seems early to close for the night.”
“No sir,” Mr. Casteneda replied. “She will be back. She sometimes has errands to do and she has to close the shop to take care of her business.”
Chuck threw his brown-stained rag over his shoulder, finished a plate of empanadas and retreated to his bedroom for the night. Bored and missing his daughters, he sat in a small chair on the balcony and watched the Mexican sunset. A thin layer of orange and red illumination gripped the horizon as a dark cloud squeezed the last light from the sky. The final dying rays of the sun cast pinkish spots along the walls of the hotel.
Chuck pictured his wife. He could see her, young, energetic and happy as a teacher in their starter home back in Victory Texas.
He recalled their beautiful wedding night and the joy they both felt, dancing to the live rock and roll band with their siblings, cousins, friends and co-workers.
As he pictured the happier times of his life with Stephanie, a distracting sound emanated from the paper-thin walls inside his hotel room. The mirror rattled against the wallpapered wall and the creaking of the bed in the room next to him belied the age-old sound of hotel sex.
Sore from a hard day’s work and finally physically tired after his first three days of slumber, he flopped on the bed, stuffed the pillow over his ears and tried his best to drown out the squeaky mattress coils and the dull moaning sounds from the room next to him.
Deaf tension between Emily and Stephanie filled Rupert’s Mercedes like a silent symphony. The argument broke out after school when Emily learned of the rescheduled meeting with the Senator. The sniping lingered throughout their early-evening pork chop dinner.
“You’re not coming with me,” Stephanie insisted.
“I sure am,” Emily replied, kicking on her sneakers and combing her hair. “You need someone who understands immigration law.”
“There may be tough talk about Daddy,” Stephanie replied. “You’re not going to want to hear it.”
“You should see my Instagram,” Emily replied, exiting the house with her purse flailing behind her. “I’ve seen it all.”
As Rupert’s car pulled into the driveway Emily crossed the lawn and entered the back seat. Stephanie opened her mouth in the foyer to protest. But, worn from her third battle of the day with as many of her daughters, she capitulated. Wordlessly, with but a nod to her driver, she slid into the leather passenger seat and yanked the restraint across her lap.
Pop music from the 90’s channel filled the gaps in conversation as both mother and daughter took the 20-minute ride to thaw from their head-butting session.
“I can’t thank you enough for finding the time to squeeze us in to this appointment with Senator Sanchez,” Stephanie said to Rupert in the quiet confines of the front seat.
“I’m sorry she had to push it to so late,” Rupert replied, while deftly exiting the highway and winding through the streets of San Antonio. “She filled in our earlier time slot. She’s doing us a favor by seeing us at six.”
“I know you had a long day in court,” Stephanie said. “I hope it went well.”
“It’s a grueling process,” Rupert answered. “I don’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
“Are you getting divorced?” Emily asked, leaning forward from her reclined position, her first words since leaving her house.
“Unfortunately, Emily,” Rupert replied, clearing his throat. “It appears so.”
They parked in an underground garage beneath the office where U.S. Senator Boni Sanchez maintained her local presence in the state. Rupert held the doors open for both Stephanie and Emily. Stephanie smiled and thanked her attorney. Emily smiled, turned away and rolled her eyes.
They made their way through the bright marble lobby and took the elevator to the 10th floor where the Senator, herself, greeted them in her reception room. A short, slightly stocky sixty-something-aged woman with dark curly hair, piercing brown eyes and a strong nose and chin, she extended her hand and vigorously shook with Rupert and Stephanie before relaxing her grip and shaking Emily’s hand more loosely.
She offered coffee, tea or water and then escorted them into a bright conference room. A light oak table towered over eight black fabric chairs. Whiteboards hung from every wall. A large television monitor at the far end of the room resembled a football scoreboard at an NFL stadium.
Emily took a candy from the dish in the middle of the table. Stephanie sat next to her. Rupert took the chair closest to the Senator, who sat at the head.
She offered condolences on Stephanie’s situation, provided empathy to Emily at being separated from her father and vowed to help any way possible. Having dispensed the necessary personal connections to start the meeting, she took out a folder filled with memoranda and official-looking documents and opened her laptop.
“I must admit,” she started. “Your husband’s situation is complicated and not an easy one to unwind. He willfully committed fraud by seeking illegal identification. If it were just at the state level, we’d have more leeway. But he operated at the federal level, which gives the government much stronger backing for swift and irrevocable action.”
“He meets all the criteria for consideration under INS Sections 212 a9A and a9C. As you know, he’s a family man, a land-owner and lifelong tax-payer,” Rupert methodically slid papers across the table to support each point. “He’s healthy and has all his immunizations. He has no criminal record of arrests or wrongdoing. He’s got a dependent wife and three dependent daughters, all entering college within the next five years. This is a significant hardship for four innocent American citizens.”
“But, he’s not innocent,” she rebutted. “I have all the sympathy in the world for him and for your entire family, Ms. Domo. But your husband’s not blameless here. He had options and plenty of time to choose to exercise those choices. His presence here, the benefits he enjoyed and the business opportunities he took could very well have created an equal hardship on some other American citizen who missed out on those same opportunities.”
“I know you’re a Republican and have certain party politics to uphold,” said Rupert. “But you come from a family of…”
“My family immigrated here legally,” Senator Sanchez tightened her voice in rebuke. “We have processes and protocols in place to provide legal immigration options. I understand Charles was brought unbeknownst as a toddler. But that doesn’t excuse his actions for the next 40 years. He had every chance to come clean. Hell, for a dozen years in the late 90′s and early 2000’s he could have just walked into any INS office and gotten a free amnesty pass. I’m as sympathetic to Mexican immigration as any politician – despite my party, Mr. Beckman. My heritage is Mexican. But it’s people like Charles who willingly eschew the rule of law and deliberately circumvent our rigorous immigration policies that cause such uproar among the American public and create demand for the harsher laws we have. It’s why so many people want to build a big wall around our borders.”
Stephanie sat quietly, wrestling in her mind as to whether she felt indignant at the Senator’s opinion or in agreement. She also felt resentment and anger at Charles’ choices. At the same time, she struggled to understand them.
“I don’t know why he did what he did,” Stephanie said. “He was wrong. I know that. If it were just him and me… well, I don’t know. But we have three daughters that need their father.”
“We need to know if you’ll help us,” Rupert finished her sentence, noticing her face start to twitch and tears well in her eyes. “We need to know which judges give us the best shot at an I-212?”
“Despite my commitment to our laws, I want to help,” the Senator said. “I’m quite sympathetic to American citizens affected by some of our harsher penalties. I can’t say I’m a big fan of expedited expulsion and wish we had a better appeal process. That having been said, I-212 is a long road to haul. And his federal offense will actually weigh against Section 212 a(9)C. So, we have a little problem here.”
“An I-212 is an application for permission to reapply for admission into the United States after deportation or removal,” Rupert explained to Stephanie and Emily as he slid a folder across the desk.
“Here’s a copy of the traffic accident report,” he said. “The officer indicates a 16-year-old female, Ashley Domo, as the driver and not Charles. This is where we believe the government erred. They based his deportation on…”
“The accident report just triggered it,” the Senator interrupted him. “They had every right to arrest him with or without the accident.”
“Agreed,” said Rupert. “Arrest, yes; deport the same day under expedited removal? We don’t believe they were within statute. The accident did not constitute a criminal act on his part.”
“Just because the teenaged daughter was driving, doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible for the vehicle registered in his name.”
“The vehicle’s not registered in his name,” Rupert sparred with the Senator.
“The judge will associate it by marriage.”
“To a Charles Domo.”
“I see where you’re going with this,” said Senator Sanchez. “They’ll consider ‘Domo’ an AKA for ‘Dominguez’. They already have the wedding photos from Facebook. I see you’ve submitted the marriage license as evidence of the kinship to satisfy the 212 a(9)A. But you can’t use it as a special circumstance credit for consideration under the statute and then turn around and try to get out of the marital connection on a technicality to support the claim of neglect at the hearing. It’s a clever legal maneuver, Mr. Beckman, but you can’t have it both ways. You’ll have to go through a straight I-212 hearing on this one.”
“That’s minimum five years,” said Rupert. “That’s unacceptable.”
“I’ve talked to most of the circuit judges in the state,” Senator Sanchez said. “I may sound negative. I assure you, I want to help the best I can. I have allies that I can influence. But I can tell you, an I-212 in this case will probably run him closer to the ten-year variety than five. He’s got that federal offense on his record now, which will knock him out of the running for a five-year ban. Frankly, you should be worried about the 20-year ban. Texas judges don’t take kindly to federal offenders defrauding the government.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Domo, but you’re probably looking at a best case of ten years.”
Stephanie sat not totally shell-shocked, as Rupert prepared her for the worst, but at a definite loss for words.
“The only chance for a fiver would be if he had any information about his alleged uncle Chico Dominguez,” she said. “I’m working with the staff at the embassy to figure out where he is. But, to be honest, with all the cuts and our strained relations with the Mexican government, we have almost no staff working the embassy. There’s basically one poor woman manning the phones and that’s it. So, we don’t have a lot of resources at our disposal. Reynosa’s not a huge city, but there are more than a half-million residents. So, it may take some time to get in touch with him.”
Stephanie looked to Rupert, who sat expressionless, helplessly searching for an angle, but coming up empty.
“Not what we had hoped to hear,” he conceded, his disappointed eyes avoiding Stephanie’s sad expression as he stood from his seat and reached forward to shake the Senator’s hand. “Keep us posted if you’re able to locate him. His family desperately needs your help.”
From the back of the line, obscured by Stephanie as she stood to shake hands with the Senator as well, Emily spoke up. Her small, mousy voice filled the relative quiet of the staid conference room.
“What about the group that Ms. Singer told me about?” she asked. “What about the group ALIAS?”