The small windows of the military-grade immigration vehicle perched higher than a typical car or van. Crouched low on a bench with his hands painfully lashed behind him, Chuck only saw treetops and telephone poles whisk by in blurred streaks of brown and green.
The burly agents sat across from him like alabaster. Their unwavering gaze chilled his spine. He lowered his eyes to the floor to avoid their dark, creepy eyes.
Suddenly aware that he had neither his wallet, nor his phone, he panicked at the isolation and unnerving lack of identification. Sweat formed at his hairline and along the back of his neck, a combination of nerves and the excruciatingly warm temperature in the bowels of the vehicle. He mustered the confidence to address his captors.
“Can you tell me where we’re going?” he asked the agents.
“When we arrive at the immigration command center,” the agent on the left intonated robotically. “The commanding officer will inform you of the deportation process.”
The sound of the phrase “deportation process” echoed across his brain, creating a stinging nerve of anxiety that pinched him above the bridge of his nose.
“Do I get a trial or something?”
“Not a trial,” the agent answered. “But you’ll appear before an official who’ll make a ruling.”
“Can I have a lawyer with me?”
“If you can get one there quick enough,” said the agent. “The process moves fast.”
Anxiety gave way to anger. Chuck felt a spectrum of emotions from rage to terror. He wanted to lash out, swear at the agents and fight for his rights. But the helplessness of his situation dawned on him. He thought better of making any overture toward the armed statues in front of him.
He felt the engine of the truck rev. The blurred scenery sped by as they merged onto the freeway. Only 30 minutes earlier, he’d stepped from the train, picked out five filets at the market and tuned into the Astros game on the car radio.
His thoughts turned from concern for himself to the shock and confusion his wife and daughters must have been experiencing. He pictured them bawling on the living room floor. His stomach knotted at the image of Stephanie struggling with her own thoughts of bewilderment, outrage and even betrayal. He knew she’d swallow her feelings to present a brave front for the girls. For an instant, Chuck forgot his wrists were secured behind his back and his muscle memory tried to allow him to drop his face into his hands. But his arms remained stuck behind him and instead, his neck and shoulders slumped awkwardly forward.
The vibrating engine of the truck continued to hum along the highway. In the distance, Chuck saw the city skyline and surmised his destination.
“Are we going to San Antonio?” he asked.
The agent paused. Without flinching his expression, he nodded.
Chuck looked away. His mind shifted into project mode. He formed a mental check list of items to remember. He needed his wallet and phone. He ran through a list of lawyers he could contact.
“We’ve always gone far out of our way to avoid trouble with the law,” Chuck muttered to the impassive agents in front of him. “Does this have anything to do with the ticket my daughter got? We paid that right away. We’ve always tried to be model citizens.”
Except, as Chuck painfully understood, he wasn’t officially an American citizen.
Stephanie waited on hold as the wailing from the upstairs bedrooms filled the center-hall colonial. Her father gave her the number of a lawyer he used when selling his business. The receptionist on the line empathized enough with her quivering voice and harrowing description of the past hour’s events to put her through to the partner.
Attorney Rupert T. Beckman announced his name quietly and unemotionally, almost to the point where Stephanie initially thought she had reached a voice mail message.
The conversation swirled in a defocused circle as she struggled to make sense in her own mind about what happened. But Rupert facilitated the discussion and helped bring order to the chaotic scraps of knowledge that rotated across her mind.
“Is your husband an alien?” Rupert asked.
The term “alien” took Stephanie by surprise and she initially pictured a purple space creature.
“No,” she answered. “He’s lived here his whole life.”
She paused. Could he have been hiding a detail about his upbringing?
“His father passed away a year earlier and his mother’s become pretty frail and forgetful,” she said. “He doesn’t see them much. He visits them once or twice a year, usually on his own.”
“Where’re his parent from?” Rupert asked.
“Mexico,” she answered, as a new wave of terror washed over her. “Oh my God. They’re from Mexico.”
Chuck sat on a stainless-steel bench that protruded from a cinder block wall painted in a cheerful powder blue that reminded him of his elementary school. He could see the bright full moon through a small window above his head. Three other men, who only spoke Spanish, sat across from him occasionally muttering to each other in a language Chuck could barely understand.
He dozed; for how long, he had no way of knowing. He could tell the evening had passed by the position of the moon and the brightened indigo sky.
Every hour or so throughout the early morning, an armed agent clanked the bars of the cell and called out a name.
The morning sky blazed red and orange by the time the agent rattled the bars and called for him.
“Carlos,” the agent repeated, his voice edging more loudly. “Carlos Dominguez.”
Chuck jolted to attention and stood.
“That’s me,” he said, awkwardly raising his hand. “I’m Carlos Dominguez.”
Stephanie held the phone so tightly to her ear, she felt it form an indentation against the side of her face. She called attorney Beckman every hour to find out where they held Chuck and what they planned to do with him. The sounds of her daughters’ sobs faded into the woodwork. Emily crept down the stairs, red-faced, and sat next to her mother at the almond-colored butcher block kitchen table.
“… and, you reside in Pleasanton?” asked attorney Beckman. “That’s what? 150-200 miles from Mexico? We should be entitled to due process. Does he have any outstanding charges? Has he been arrested recently? Any moving violations? Is there any reason they could build a case against him?”
“Nothing,” Stephanie said, her head resting against her palm.
“Are you positive?” Rupert pressed. “Immigration has heated up over the past few years, but ICE doesn’t usually mobilize like this without at least something to initiate it. A fender bender? A red light? A stop-sign?”
“My middle daughter got a ticket on the avenue a couple weeks ago, which we paid immediately.”
“It’s not much,” Rupert said. “But it could have sparked them. We’ll need to obtain the NTA and review any charges against him.”
“They can only hold him for 24-hours before they have to either deport him through an expedited action, which doesn’t apply in this case because you don’t live within 100 miles of the border, or they have to issue an NTA, which stands for Notice to Appear. Once that happens, we’ll have 14 days to make our case.”
“He’s lived here all his life,” Stephanie rested her elbow on the table as Emily placed her hand on her mother’s back. “Are you sure his real name is Carlos Dominguez. That’s not some mistaken identity?”
“The INS says they have proof.” Rupert said. “Do you know when he was brought here by his parents?”
“He never talks about it,” Stephanie replied. “He said he was born in Texas.”
“They told me his driver’s license is a professionally created fake,” Rupert continued. “What about his birth certificate? Do you have that?”
“He doesn’t have a copy of his birth certificate. He said his parents didn’t keep records very well. I feel like such a fool.”
“You’d need valid paperwork to get a mortgage,” said Rupert.
“We bought the house from my parents and put it in my name,” Stephanie explained. “My husband was between jobs and it seemed like the easiest way to do it at the time.”
“How old is he now?” Rupert asked.
“He’s 46,” Stephanie replied. “At least, that’s what he says. But I don’t know what’s true anymore.”
“He doesn’t qualify for Deferred Action,” Rupert said.
“The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act,” Rupert explained. “It’s commonly known as DACA. It was passed during the President Obama administration in 2012 and protects children who were brought to the United States illegally.”
“I thought that was going to be revoked?”
“Parts of it have been,” Rupert replied. “Other parts of it are still under review by Congress and the President. But it doesn’t matter because he was born well before the cutoff.”
“He shouldn’t even have been arrested in the first place,” Stephanie’s voice cracked as a tear streamed down her face. “He’s been here for at least the past 25 years since I’ve known him. Doesn’t it matter that he’s married to an American?”
“Of course, that’s a critical factor,” Rupert said. “We have a very strong case here. He can apply for a Visa based on his relationship with you. And, given the length and nature of the relationship, he’ll have a good chance of earning a Green Card. Have you been married longer than 10 years?”
“We’ve been married for 20. We have three kids.”
“Good,” Rupert’s organized, positive attitude calmed Stephanie. “We can immediately file for Cessation of Deportation given you’ve been married for longer than 10 years. And, we can claim hardship to the family with him removed. Is he the sole salary in the family?”
“I used to work as a teacher,” she replied. “I took 10 years off when my girls were young. I substitute sometimes now. His income is up and down due to his commission, but it pays the bills. The money I make goes toward our college fund.”
“Can you prove he’s had a steady income for the past three years?” Rupert asked. “There are four criteria the INS will review.”
“The INS?” Stephanie asked. “They issue the Green Cards?”
“Yes,” Rupert said. “They’ll want to review how he entered the country, which they may not be able to confirm. That may work in our favor. They’ll want to know he’s had a steady income for the past three years. We can show a continuous stream of pictures to demonstrate the merits of your marriage. Also, he’ll need to pass a few medical examinations. We can get all this accomplished in the two weeks that we have.”
“Chuck was out of work for a couple months last year as the furniture store laid him off,” Stephanie said. “But he’s been at the new place for the past year and a half.”
“Has he made a consistent income?”
“It was tight at first,” Stephanie answered. “It’s a tough business and most of his paycheck comes from commissions. But, the past six months have been really good for him.”
“Ok,” Rupert said. “We can work with that.”
“Where’s Chuck now?” Stephanie asked. “I need to see him. I need talk to him. I have to bring him his phone and wallet. I want to let him know we’re working on getting him out of there.”
“Most likely he’s in a detention center in San Antonio,” Rupert spoke calmly and firmly. “I have several voicemails out and hope to confirm shortly. As soon as I get through to the right authority, I’m going to set an appointment to see him – hopefully within a few hours. I know 14 days doesn’t seem like a lot of time to you, but we’ve got many options available to us and we can start right away. I’m going to make more calls, confirm exactly where he is and get us in there to start the process.”
“Thank you,” Stephanie said, turning her head to hide the teardrops on her cheeks from her youngest daughter. “If we can get him out of there tonight, I’d hate to think of him sleeping in some jail cell for another night.”
“It depends on whether or not we get a compassionate ICE agent,” Rupert said in as soft a voice as he could. “But, don’t worry, Mrs. Domo, a one-night stay is the worst-case scenario here. Based on the information in his case, your husband is owed due process. We have time. He’s not going anywhere right away.”
After a long, winding walk through several non-descript, poorly-lit hallways, the ICE agent tugged Chuck into a small windowless cement room.
The tallest of the agents that had barged into his home earlier, sat at a desk with a stack of folders on either side of him.
“Carlos Dominguez,” he said without looking up.
“Yes,” Chuck answered. “That’s me.”
“Your parents are Roberto and Angelina Dominguez?”
“Your father is deceased and your mother still lives in McAllen, Texas?”
“I recently moved her to a home in Mission,”
“I see,” said the agent, making a mark on a page in his folder. “Your last address of residence is 10 North 25th Street in McAllen?”
“No sir,” Chuck’s voice quivered. “I’m up in Pleasanton.”
The agent looked at Chuck peering deeply through his eyes. His rock-hard face resembled the stone images of past Presidents carved into the side of Mount Rushmore, his expression about as equally impassive.
“Your last known address of record is McAllen,” he said. “You understand, McAllen is within 100 miles of the Texas border.”
“I guess so,” Chuck’s voice trailed. “There must be a mistake. I haven’t lived in McAllen since I was a little kid. Can we have that information updated?”
“You understand,” the agent ignored Chuck’s plea. “As an illegal alien residing within 100 miles of the border, you qualify for expedited deportation.”
“What does that mean?” Chuck asked.
“It means we can send you back to Mexico immediately.”
“I’m sure my wife is working with my lawyer,” Chuck’s voice wavered as he spoke. “Do I get some sort of court date first? Can I appeal to someone? Is there a judge or something that reviews my case? I have a wife and kids.”
“We have no record of a birth certificate for you,” said the agent.
“I’ve never really had one that I can remember,” Chuck stammered as sweat dripped from his forehead.
“So, we have no age on file for you,” the agent continued. “You’re an illegal alien, of unknown age, residing within 100 miles of the border, with at least one infraction on your record.”
“I’m 46,” Chuck leaned forward, his anger feeding a renewed confidence and causing him to raise his voice. “And, I don’t know what infraction you’re talking about. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
Without writing in his folder, the agent gazed at Chuck again. The faintest whiff of a smile emerged from a twitch of his lip and then dissipated as quickly.
“You are not a citizen of the United States,” the agent also raised his voice one small increment and snarled in a strangely refined manner. “You’re an illegal alien.”
“I get a phone call, don’t I?” Chuck asked, his newfound confidence already waning.
“In the case of an expedited expulsion,” he said, slowly and firmly with a deathly finality. “There’s no court, no judge and no appeal. Given this status, you’re not even technically entitled to a phone call. Your wife may be working with a lawyer, but right now there’s only you and me. And, I’m the final decision maker here.”
“Surely, you can understand,” Chuck could barely eke the words from his lips. “I have a wife and three beautiful daughters who love me and need me. There’s gotta be some compassion…”
“Tell me, Mr. Domo,” the agent spat sarcasm at Chuck. “I assume you’re going by Domo and not your birth name of Dominguez?”
Chuck stared back, waffling between feelings of helplessness, desperation and defiance.
“And, you’ve changed from Carlos to Chuck, how American,” the agent continued. “Why not Chico?”
The nerves in Chuck’s chest tingled and spread to his reddening face.
“Would you like to tell me about Chico?”
Chuck froze, his head shaking slightly up and down and then nervously from side-to-side.
“Chico?” the agent continued. “Ring a bell Mr. Dominguez?”
Chuck continued to shake his head and looked down into his hands as the ICE agent read off a series of numbers from a sheet of paper on his desk.
“Do these numbers sound familiar to you?” he asked. “Your black-market social security number and license number, both obtained by one bad hombre, who just happens to have the same name as you.”
“It is a common name,” Chuck protested, his armpits staining through his shirt and sweat dripping across his receded hairline.
“I know the fear that Chico can put into a man’s mind,” he continued. “Your family. Your kids. You want to protect them from harm.”
Chuck looked away from the agent and closed his eyes.
“But you’ve broken federal law by falsifying your ID. And you’re aiding and abetting a known felon on our top ten list, acting as an accomplice to his 100-plus counts of federal identity theft. That’s pretty deep shit. I can’t guarantee we can release you if you give us information about your supplier of illegal, false information, but, it sure might help. And right now, Señor Dominguez, you need all the help you can get. You know, we deport felons here in the U-S-of-A. That’s right, puta. Is that what you want Carlos? Huh?”
As his defiance ebbed from his body, Chuck whispered.
“I don’t know anyone named Chico.”
“He’s your Goddam uncle,” the agent barked. “How can we find him? Where does he live? How can we contact him? Give him up and maybe we’ll show some mercy.”
Chuck’s face whitened. The sweat dripped down the side of his cheek. He looked up with wide eyes and arched brows.
“I’m a family man,” he pleaded. “I’ve been here for 40 years. I’ve kept to myself and haven’t caused any problems. Please, Sir. Please, if you let me go, I’ll go through the proper channels. I need to see my wife. My girls. They must be so upset. Please. Is there anything you can do to help me?”
“You’ll give us Chico?”
Chuck tightened his lips and stared into his lap.
Without acknowledging Chuck’s points about having a family in the country, the agent nodded to the guard, who clutched him by the elbow and hoisted him out of his seat.
“We’ll find Chico without your help, Mr. Do-Ming-Gez,” he said as he wrote on Chuck’s paperwork.
For a split second, the guard paused while the tall ICE agent at the table made a final mark on the page. He closed the folder, handed it to the guard and gave a sideways nod as if directing him to take Chuck somewhere out to the left; the opposite way in which they arrived from his cell.
“Are you gonna let me go home?” Chuck asked the ICE agent, who had already taken out another folder and lowered his eyes to his next set of paperwork. “Where are you sending me? What’s happening? This is America for Christ’s sake. I have rights.”
The guard escorted him out of the room with the folder in one hand and Chuck’s elbow in the other. They navigated a few more twisty corridors before arriving at a dispatch window by a heavily barred door. Chuck tugged lightly against his captor’s grip, but clearly had no chance of pulling away, and even less prospect of escaping.
The guard handed the folder to another slightly less beefy agent at an office chair on the other side of the window.
“Bus leaves in ten,” said the clerical worker to Chuck’s guard.
“Excuse me,” Chuck turned to face his captor the best he could without fighting his clutch, noticing his name stitched into a patch on his chest. “Mr. Chavez?”
Chavez maneuvered him toward the barred door.
“Can you at least tell me where you’re taking me?” he snapped, allowing annoyance to seep into his tone.
Chavez opened the door. Chuck regarded a large barracks-style garage. A grey van idled by the exit. Chuck could make out several heads bobbing back and forth through several of the windows.
“Do you have kids, Mr. Chavez?” Chuck continued. “You have a wedding band, and you’re old enough to have a family. I have three beautiful daughters who all love me and count on me.”
Chavez pulled Chuck through the doorway into the garage.
“I don’t make the rules,” Chavez finally broke his silence. “I just follow them as instructed.”
“Can you at least tell me where this bus is gonna take me?”
“A city called Reynosa,” he replied, expressionlessly. “Reynosa, Mexico.”