Doing what's right

Sunday, December 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:33 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

In 1991, Francisco Xavier Inzunza floated across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on an inner tube. Then, dodging surveillance cameras and border patrol agents, he crossed a busy highway and leaped over a 6-foot wall into the United States.

With only the clothes on his back, Inzunza made his way to Colorado to join his wife and 3-year-old son, who had come to the United States on tourist visas.

In 1993 the Inzunza family settled in Marshall, a town of 12,500 people halfway between Columbia and Kansas City. From the moment he arrived, “Paco,” as everyone calls Inzunza, dedicated his time and energy to bridging the divide between the longtime residents of Marshall and the town’s growing immigrant community. He volunteered as a translator for hospitals, schools and churches. He helped new arrivals who knew little or no English fill out job applications and find decent, affordable housing.

In 1999, the Marshall Police Department asked Inzunza to help with a murder investigation. He was instrumental in extracting a confession from the killer, Juan Antonio Rodríguez, and as a witness at the trial, he helped secure a conviction. In appreciation of his work, Marshall police awarded Inzunza a certificate that read, “Sherlock Holmes could not have done it better.”

Inzunza had done so many things right that he never expected one day they would go so wrong. But in September, at a hearing in Kansas City, a judge will decide whether Inzunza will be forced to return to Mexico after 13 years in the United States.

Inzunza’s trouble began when Saline County prosecutors told him he would be a central witness at Rodríguez’s trial. At that point, Inzunza owned up to a secret: He had been living in the United States illegally. In exchange for his help in the murder case, the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted Inzunza a “public-interest parole,” which allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States while assisting with criminal investigations.

But there was more to the deal: To get a work permit, Inzunza agreed to become a confidential informant for the INS. Things were going well enough until September 2003, when Inzunza suddenly was told deportation proceedings against him would begin immediately.

“All I wanted was to achieve something good for my family,” says Inzunza, sitting in the kitchen of his family’s small apartment in Marshall. “Nothing like this.”

Inzunza’s case is not an isolated one. Lawyers and immigration advocates across the country say many undocumented foreigners agree to become informants or witnesses, only to be deported when the criminal investigations end.

“This is a pattern that we are seeing emerging nationwide,” says Rekha Sharma-Crawford, an immigration attorney in Overland Park, Kan., and a former district attorney in Sedgwick County, Kan. “There are cases in which immigrants have spent three years providing (law enforcement) with information, and all of the sudden they go in one day and without any notice they are told, ‘Now it’s over.’”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government established the Responsible Cooperators Program. It encourages immigrants who might have information regarding criminal acts, particularly acts of terrorism, to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. At a news conference announcing the program on Nov. 29, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave notice to potential informants that in exchange for “reliable and useful” information, the federal government “will help you obtain a visa to reside in the United States and ultimately become a United States citizen.”

However, under the current law, there is no guarantee that an immigrant who works as an informant will be granted citizenship, says David Leopold, an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio, and board member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Somebody who is used as a witness is not out of danger of deportation,” Leopold says. “In fact, ultimately when they are finished, unless there is some special deal cut up front, they will typically be put in removal proceedings.”

Jonathan Willmoth, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City, says the federal government often gives immigrants, many of whom barely speak English, the impression that they will be allowed to remain in the United States permanently if they cooperate.

“The person doesn’t get a promise of lawful permanent residency but gets a vague, ‘We’ll help you out with your papers,’” Willmoth says. “The ‘we’ll help you with your papers’ doesn’t mean anything in any sort of legal terms. So what they understand and what they agree to is so vague that the government can easily get out of it.”

Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment, saying the agency does not discuss issues concerning confidential informants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of two new agencies that replaced the INS, which was eliminated in 2003; the other new agency is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Michael Cutler, a former senior special agent with the New York district of the INS, says misunderstandings are rare, but sometimes immigrants who agree to become informants “hear what they want to hear.”

“We make sure that everyone understands what is going on,” says Cutler, who now works for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “I am not going to say that every agent is a Boy Scout. That doesn’t happen, either. But in my experience, the bulk of the problems that we’ve had were on the informants’ side and not on the law enforcement’s side.”

In most cases, immigration attorneys say, it’s difficult to know what, if any, promises were made. Agreements between the government and immigrants are often verbal, and while some informants agree in writing to help the agency, they usually fail to secure a copy of the documents. Even the informants’ attorneys have difficulty getting the details of any agreement.

Angela Ferguson, an attorney representing Inzunza, says she has filed Freedom of Information Act requests on behalf of clients, but she has never been granted access to any written agreements.

“The key question is: What was the agreement?” Sharma-Crawford says. “There are enough cases that have come to court that allow us to say that this is a pattern of misleading people and that it should stop.”

Getting involved

Paco Inzunza, his wife, Susy, and their young son, Paquito, left a working-class life in Acapulco, as well as a large extended family, to come to the United States. In Mexico, Paco worked for a bankrupt transportation company; Susy sold time-share packages. With Mexico about to enter one of the worst economic downturns in its history, the future seemed more promising north of the border.

There were only a handful of Latino families in Marshall when the Inzunzas arrived in 1993. Then, Excel reopened a meat-processing plant, and by 2000, 891 Hispanics lived in Marshall, comprising 7.2 percent of the town’s population, according to census data.

Inzunza got a job at the Excel plant as soon as it opened and quickly became the link between management and the new Latino workers.

“When we came here, no one translated for us at the doctor or the school,” he says. “We communicated by gestures and signs. It was tough.”

In 1996, Inzunza started volunteering as a translator for the Marshall Police Department in cases of drunken driving, child abuse and domestic violence. He drove a black Mercury with a “Friend of the Marshall Police” sticker on the rear window. Susy supported her husband as he reached deeper into the community, but it was a constant source of concern for her. Everyone knew Paco as Manuel López, and she feared his true identity and undocumented status would be discovered and he would be deported.

“Sometimes I told him not to go (to translate),” she says. “But it was his decision. And he always went.”

At around 7 p.m. on Dec. 9, 1999, as the family prepared to go out to dinner, the telephone rang. A Marshall police officer told Inzunza that a man’s body had been found in a ditch near the railroad tracks. He had been stabbed 14 times and strangled. For the next two days, Inzunza helped the police execute search warrants and advise Spanish-speaking witnesses of their rights. He translated for police as Juan Antonio Rodríguez, an undocumented worker from El Salvador, speaking Spanish, confessed to the crime.

But by becoming a central witness in the case, Inzunza created a dilemma. Should he protect his identity by refusing to testify at Rodríguez’s trial? Or should he disclose his illegal immigration status and risk deportation?

Finally, Inzunza disclosed the truth to Marshall Police Chief James Simmerman.

“My real name is not Manuel López, but Francisco Xavier Inzunza,” he told Simmerman, “and I have been in this country undocumented since 1991.”

Now Simmerman, a portly man with small, deep-blue eyes, had a problem. Inzunza’s immigration status could make him an unreliable witness and hurt the prosecutors’ case against Rodríguez.

“I wish Inzunza had been truthful,” Simmerman says, sitting in his office. “I was disappointed with him because he lied to me.”

Simmerman informed the INS in Kansas City that an undocumented immigrant was assisting his department in a murder investigation.

A few months later, agent James Ford met Inzunza at a Marshall restaurant. Inzunza says Ford told him that as long as he helped with the prosecution, he could stay in the United States. Inzunza also was issued a renewable work permit and, for the first time in eight years, he would be able to use his real name.

However, Ford told Inzunza he also was expected to act as a confidential informant for the INS. Among his duties was to report the sale of drugs and false citizenship papers. Inzunza says Ford told him, “‘We don’t look for people like you. We look for criminals, people who sell documents and sell drugs.’”

Inzunza says he later signed several documents, including one in which he acknowledged he would not be paid for his cooperation.

“They said that the work permit was my payment,” he says.

He also signed a document that said the INS would protect him and his family if the undercover work put him at risk.

None of the documents stated specifically how much undercover work he was expected to perform, he says. Nor did they spell out how long the arrangement would last or whether they would allow him to upgrade his immigration status in the future.

“At that point, I had no choice,” Inzunza says. “I had to sign the papers.”

Simmerman agrees. “It was either that or be deported.”

Inzunza left the Kansas City INS office that day with not just a work permit, but his true identity. He was able to get a credit card and a legitimate driver’s license. Perhaps most important, his youngest son, Anthony, could attend school under his real name.

“I got out of the closet,” Inzunza says, “and I removed a huge burden I had on me.”

“Used and discarded”

For the next few years, Inzunza visited the INS office in Kansas City annually to have his work permit renewed.

“When they asked me what I had done, I mentioned the trial,” Inzunza says. “They checked with the prosecutor and renewed my work permit.”

In spring 2002, a Saline County jury convicted Rodríguez on charges of second-degree murder and armed criminal action. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Prosecutor Donald Stouffer says a conviction might not have been possible without Inzunza’s help obtaining the confession and his testimony at the trial. Stouffer recalls that it wasn’t until after the trial was over and deportation proceedings had begun that he learned the INS had asked Inzunza to be a confidential informant.

“Maybe I was naive thinking that his cooperation in our prosecution was all that was requested,” Stouffer says. “I was not aware of any other request made to him.”

When Inzunza reported to the INS in September 2003, an agent told him he had not done enough as a confidential informant and his work permit would not be renewed. The agent said information about the deportation proceedings the agency planned to initiate would arrive in the mail.

Chuck Hird, a longtime Marshall resident who has become a good friend and adviser to Inzunza, says he believes that once the criminal justice system had disposed of Rodríguez, the government decided to dispose of Inzunza.

“The immigration service used him and discarded him,” Hird says. “By agreeing to help in the trial, he basically turned himself in.”

Angela Ferguson, Inzunza’s lawyer, echoes Hird’s sentiments.

“They use a lot of people like that,” she says. “They catch you, they use you, and they promise you lots of things if you turn in people who are criminals.”

Inzunza is the first to admit he was never a good confidential informant. He was a friend of the local police, he steered clear of drugs and only went to bars a few times a year — “with my wife,” he says. Once, the INS asked Inzunza to infiltrate a mid-Missouri restaurant, where agents suspected the owners had hired coyotes — people who help immigrants into the United States for a fee — to bring in undocumented workers. Inzunza applied for a job at the restaurant, but he wasn’t hired.

Ferguson plans to fight the deportation effort by highlighting her client’s moral character and the fact that his son is a U.S. citizen who could suffer extreme harm if his father is forced to return to Mexico. She will have her work cut out for her: Only about 5 percent of applications like Inzunza’s — called cancellation of removal — are approved. According to the Department of Justice, 80 percent of people who appear before immigration judges are deported. About 186,000 immigrants were deported from the United States in 2003. Since 1998, more Mexicans have been deported than immigrants in any other group.

Community support

Today, while he waits for his deportation hearing, Inzunza tries to live a normal life. His lawyer recently got him a temporary work authorization so he could work as a custodian at Eastwood Elementary School. He is always involved in community activities, whether it is helping with the Spanish Mass at St. Peter’s Church, coaching a children’s baseball team for the Optimist Club or organizing Sunday outdoor volleyball games.

“We wish we had lots of Pacos,” says Kevin Hart, assistant superintendent of the Marshall Public School District. “He has been the type of fellow that always wanted to help.”

Hart is among the many Marshall residents who have rallied for Inzunza’s cause. In the past months, residents have turned out for Latin dances, a Buffet Hispano and other social events to raise money for Inzunza’s legal expenses. Others have sent checks to the family. Letters of support have poured in, as have offers to testify on his behalf in court. From Marshall Mayor Connie Latimer to local teachers, bank officials and police officers, the people of Marshall want to help a man they believe has made their town a better place.

“I am the Mayor of the City of Marshall, and it is in the best interest of our city to have Paco remain a member of our community,” says a letter Latimer has written to the judge in Inzunza’s case. “While none of us condone illegal immigration, we recognize an upstanding citizen when we are face to face with one and this is exactly what Paco is.”

Ronald Ott, chief executive officer at Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall, wrote that without Inzunza’s help as a translator, “doctors and nurses would not have been able to treat and care for many of our patients. It is my hope that Mr. Inzunza can stay (in the United States) … we certainly need his continued assistance here at Fitzgibbon Hospital.”

In the pile of letters, there’s one from the prosecutor in the 1999 murder investigation.

“It would have been easy for Inzunza to refuse assistance to the police in this homicide investigation,” Stouffer wrote. “It would have been easy for him to simply refuse to cooperate in the trial preparations. However, he apparently decided that his obligation to the community was worth the sacrifice of his anonymous, and therefore, relatively secure status.”

Stouffer says he is prepared to testify in Inzunza’s deportation trial.

“I feel bad because it was my case,” Stouffer says. “I wish all of our citizens were as caring and helpful in the community as Paco. He is a unique person. On the other hand, he is undocumented, and that’s illegal.

“What shocks me so much is that we have had undocumented foreign nationals stopped on the I-70 and brought to jail, and the immigration service would say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have enough people to deal with that. Let them go.’ And then we got this guy who was solid and had worked in the community and had helped us so much in this criminal case, and he is the one (being deported). It just seems to be so inconsistent.”

Simmerman, the police chief, also says he is willing to testify at Inzunza’s deportation hearing.

“I don’t think they should deport him,” Simmerman says. “He has been a good citizen.”

In July, Inzunza and his lawyer sat in the Kansas City district office of the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, looking at a television screen. His lawyer had advised him to look as professional as possible, so Inzunza had exchanged his colorful T-shirts and Atlanta Braves cap for a dark blue suit.

After a few moments, a judge in Chicago appeared on the screen via a video hookup. “Do you want to speak English or Spanish?” the judge asked.

“English,” Inzunza replied.

A few more questions followed before the judge set the date for Inzunza’s deportation hearing — 1:00 p.m. Sept. 14, 2005, in Kansas City.

The pending proceedings evoke an array of feelings for Inzunza. He sometimes feels deceived, confused, fearful. At other times, he is overwhelmed with gratitude toward his neighbors and friends. He feels no anger, he says, nor does he regret putting himself on the spot to help the police in the murder investigation.

“I never did anything that I have to be ashamed of,” Inzunza says. “I always tried to help. The only bad thing I did was to come to this country illegally.”

Inzunza seems especially hopeful when his children are around. He is usually the one cheering others up. He jokes and changes subjects rapidly.

“Did I tell you that I have two of Vinny Castilla’s old bats?” he says one evening, pulling souvenirs from the professional baseball player from a closet in his apartment.

Inzunza’s 9-year-old son, Anthony, was born in the United States and is a fairly typical American boy. Anthony speaks a little Spanish, but his preferred language is English, in which he is fluent. His goal in life is no different than many other boys his age.

“In two years I want to be an outfielder, Dad,” he announces. “I am gonna be good.”

Susy Inzunza says sometimes she wakes up in the night worried about her family’s future.

‘What are we going to do?’” she asks her husband. And the answer is always the same: Everyone will stay, or if the judge rules against him, the family will return, together, to Mexico.

But the possibility that he will be deported saddens Inzunza. Marshall has been his home, a good place to raise his children, for more than a decade. He is determined to remain.

“Now I am going to fight for me and for my family,” he says. “I am going to fight until the last day.”

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