Saturday, September 29, 2007
The Case Of Pedro Zapeta: Federal Government Steals $59,000 From Illegal Alien On His Way Out Of The United States
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a higher regard for a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe than for a typical illegal alien. My attitude toward illegals - round 'em up and ship 'em back, and to hell with the impact upon them, as well as upon any selfish employers who voluntarily and complicitly engaged their services.
But I just read a story that sent me into nuclear mode - the Federal government quite literally stole $59,000 from an illegal alien who had worked here for 11 years, broke no other laws while he was here, and was at the airport, on his way out of the country to permanently return to his home country when he was caught. Full story reported by CNN.
For 11 years, Pedro Zapeta (pictured above left), an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, lived his version of the American dream in Stuart, Florida: washing dishes and living frugally to bring money back to his home country. Two years ago, Zapeta was ready to return to Guatemala, so he carried a duffel bag filled with $59,000 -- all the cash he had scrimped and saved over the years -- to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But when Zapeta tried to go through airport security, an officer spotted the money in the bag and called U.S. customs officials. "They asked me how much money I had," Zapeta recalled, speaking to CNN in Spanish. He told the customs officials $59,000. At that point, U.S. customs seized his money, setting off a two-year struggle for Zapeta to get it back.
Zapeta, who speaks no English, said he didn't know he was running afoul of U.S. law by failing to declare he was carrying more than $10,000 with him. Anyone entering or leaving the country with more than $10,000 has to fill out a one-page form declaring the money to U.S. customs.
Officials initially accused Zapeta of being a courier for the drug trade, but they dropped the allegation once he produced pay stubs from restaurants where he had worked. Zapeta earned $5.50 an hour at most of the places where he washed dishes. When he learned to do more, he got a 25-cent raise.
After customs officials seized the money, they turned Zapeta over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS released him but began deportation proceedings. For two years, Zapeta has had two attorneys working pro bono: one on his immigration case, the other trying to get his money back.
After Zapeta's story was publicized on CNN and in the Palm Beach Post newspaper in 2006, sympathetic people sent him nearly $10,000 -- money that now sits in a trust.
Robert Gershman, one of Zapeta's attorneys, said federal prosecutors later offered his client a deal: He could take $10,000 of the original cash seized, plus $9,000 in donations as long as he didn't talk publicly and left the country immediately. Zapeta said, "No." He wanted all his money. He'd earned it, he said.
Now, according to Gershman, the Internal Revenue Service wants access to the donated cash to cover taxes on the donations and on the money Zapeta made as a dishwasher. Zapeta admits he never paid taxes.
CNN contacted the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami, U.S. Customs and the IRS about Zapeta's case. They all declined to comment.
On Wednesday (September 26th), Zapeta went to immigration court and got more bad news. The judge gave the dishwasher until the end of January to leave the country on his own. He's unlikely to see a penny of his money. And, understandably, he no longer feels good about this country. [Ed. Note: Wonder-effing-ful. Half the world already hates us, and we just made another enemy.]
Zapeta said his goal in coming to the United States was to make enough money to buy land in his mountain village and build a home for his mother and sisters. He sent no money back to Guatemala over the years, he said, and planned to bring it all home at once. [Ed. Note: This statmement implies that he was leaving permanently and had no plans to either return himself or bring any family members to the U.S.]
At Wednesday's hearing, Zapeta was given official status in the United States -- voluntary departure -- and a signed order from a judge. For the first time, he can work legally in the U.S. So, even though he has $69,000 which the Feds have stolen from him, he's got to work until at least January to earn enough money just to fly back to Guatemala - with absolutely nothing else to show for his 11 years labor here.
By the end of January, Zapeta may be able to earn enough money to pay for a one-way ticket home so the U.S. government, which seized his $59,000, doesn't have to do so.
Commentary: This story damn near sent me through the roof. Here's a guy who came here illegally, worked for 11 years, broke no other laws, with the intent of taking his proceeds back to his home country to create a better life in his home country for himself and his family. Yes, he broke the law by sneaking into our country, but being an illegal alien is a status offense, NOT a criminal offense (although I believe this should change). He also failed to pay taxes, and yes, he should be held accountable for that failure. But to steal his ENTIRE wad? What kind of monsters do we have in the Federal government? Never mind, Vicki Weaver, the Branch Davidians, Chester Doles, and Shaun Walker are among the many who have found out first hand what kind of monsters nestle within the ranks of the Feds.
O.K., so let's hold him accountable for non-payment of Federal taxes. I just pulled out the 2006 Tax Tables. Zapeta is obviously single, with no dependents in the U.S. The tax on $69,000 for someone in that category is $13,814. Then assess fines for both being in the country illegally, and attempting to take out more than $10,000 undeclared, enough to bring the total obligation up to $20,000. Subtract $20,000 from the $69,000, give him back $49,000, and send him on his way - with a permanent ban against him ever returning to the United States. This is the humane way to do it - you force him to be accountable, but you let him take away enough of his wad so he can build a better life for himself and his family in Guatemala. But for God's sake, you do NOT take away a guy's ENTIRE wad just because he was an illegal. And the Feds should have known that Zapeta was not a drug courier - professional drug couriers know our laws and would not even attempt to openly carry $59,000 in a duffel bag through an international airport.
And what about Zapeta's employer in Stuart, FL? Why no report about how the Federal government is holding his former employer accountable? Businesses actively aid and abet illegal immigration so they can save pennies and get a more complicit and ignorant labor force. The illegal alien problem cannot be solved without holding the business community accountable for their contribution.
But what's really dangerous about this whole process is that government, without so much as a trial, can seize your assets and sit on them or even dispose of them. You have no effective recourse because the assets you need to pursue a legal remedy are denied you. This is what the process known as asset forfeiture has led to - the most egregious violation of Fourth Amendment sanctions against illegal search and seizure that exists. This is why I consider asset forfeiture to be government theft.
And asset forfeiture is employed at all levels of government. In Anchorage, Alaska, the Municipal Assembly has prescribed vehicle forfeiture in two highly-publicized cases - chronic DUI, and chronic prostitution solicitation. In the case of chronic DUI, there is some public safety logic, since a vehicle in the hands of an intoxicated driver automatically becomes an offensive weapon, and an intoxicated driver is correctly presumed to be an immediate danger to the public whenever behind the wheel. But for prostitution solicitation? How does a vehicle become a dangerous weapon in that case? The guy trolling for hookers in Spenard does not pose a danger to the public simply by driving his vehicle, so asset forfeiture in that case smacks more of government theft.
In my opinion, the only application of asset forfeiture that is truly in keeping with the spirit of the Fourth Amendment is forfeiture pronounced by a judge as part of a sentence, such as "I hereby sentence you to five years in jail and forfeiture of the following named assets". That approach keeps it constitutional in spirit.
Additional References on Asset Forfeiture:
(1). Wikipedia has a balanced article explaining asset forfeiture.
(2). The Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR) website presents the case against asset forfeiture.
(3). The FBI website presents the case supporting asset forfeiture.