Victims in fake-drug case await special visas
Sunday, May 28, 2006
By PAUL MEYER
The Dallas Morning News
Five years ago, crooked drug informants and kilos of crushed billiard chalk ravaged Jaime Siguenza. He endured a bogus arrest, nearly six months in jail, deportation, a police corruption trial and lawsuit: all tied to fake drugs planted on innocent immigrants.
But he still awaits a final act of justice: permission to stay in America.
This month, Mr. Siguenza joined two fellow victims of the 2001 Dallas fake-drug scandal in line to become some of the first illegal immigrants in the country to receive special visas for crime victims.
Fake Drugs, Real Lives: An interactive timeline featuring in-depth information, facts and figures from the scandal in the DPD.
The visas could be issued as early as this summer, the government said last week, ending years of bureaucratic delays, uncertainty and legal action.
"If I think too much about it, I can't sleep," Mr. Siguenza said during a recent interview at his auto sales and repair shop.
"Any time I watch the news, it [reminds me] that I could still be deported."
Congress created the special victim visa category in 2000, but regulations on how to apply for and issue them were never published. And none have been handed out, although more than 2,100 immigrants nationally have been told they can remain in the country for the time being.
Among those are victims of the Dallas fake-drug scandal and their spouses, including Mr. Siguenza, his wife, Jose Luis Vega, Erubiel Cruz and Mr. Cruz's wife.
The interim relief allows them to stay in America on a year-by-year basis until the government begins distributing the visas. The interim status also allows them to apply for work permits. But it does not let them travel home to Mexico to visit families.
"It's a very desperate situation," Mr. Vega said.
"Just recently, my mother passed away [in Mexico], and I couldn't go back because I knew I'd risk everything."
It's a situation facing thousands of immigrant victims of crime nationally, each having cooperated in government prosecutions or investigations but now waiting for word of whether it will mean a new life in America.
"There is a history of sort of benign neglect for applicants with programs ... to benefit some of the most vulnerable immigrants in the country," says Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles.
"If this involved a law giving benefits to million-dollar investors, my gosh, the [government] would sprint to the finish line to get regulations out and get the program up and running."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Bill Strassberger attributes delays in writing the visa regulations in part to events after 9/11, including the restructuring of immigration authority under the Department of Homeland Security.
"It's an unfortunate situation, but at least we've been able to provide some interim relief to allow people to stay here and work here until this issue is resolved," Mr. Strassberger said.
He confirmed that officials are working to have regulations in place by early July, a deadline established when legislation was reauthorized and signed by President Bush in January.
The visas would let immigrants stay in the U.S. four years and then apply for permanent residency.
Living in limbo
The Dallas fake-drug victims were exonerated years ago. They won the public's sympathy and more than $5 million in a lawsuit against the city.
But many remain here illegally, living in limbo.
Mr. Vega says some men he knew were deported or returned home in recent years. One traveled to Mexico to fight for custody of his children, knowing he wouldn't be able to come back legally.
The Dallas County district attorney's office is working with federal officials to get that man back to testify in the upcoming trial of Mark Delapaz, a former Dallas narcotics officer at the center of the fake-drug scandal.
Toby Shook, the office's chief of the felony trial division and the Republican nominee for district attorney, has also supported victims seeking the protection visas.
"Our investigation showed these individuals were hardworking people with families, and they had been very cooperative," Mr. Shook said. "They believed in American ideals, and the bottom line was we couldn't prosecute the cases without their cooperation."
Mr. Siguenza, for one, remains surrounded by reminders of the Kafkaesque events that began in 2001 when several kilos of fake cocaine were planted in a salvage car in the parking lot of his father's car-repair business. He faced two drug-related charges and insisted he was innocent but pleaded guilty rather than face prison time.
He was deported to Mexico. A later analysis showed only trace amounts of drugs in the vehicle. He sneaked back in the country, cooperated with the government prosecutions and rebuilt a life as a car salesman and mechanic.
Then last month he returned to a Dallas courthouse to get paperwork needed for his visa application, only to find one of the drug charges remained on his record.
"They wanted to arrest me," he said.
Upon realizing the mistake, the district attorney's office quickly filed a new motion to dismiss the charge. Officials say a judge had failed to sign the original motion to dismiss years ago.
"I think once we get the visa ... I think that's what I feel they owe us," Mr. Siguenza said.
Afraid to apply
George Rodriguez, the immigration attorney for many of the fake-drug victims, says some remain afraid to apply for the visa given the risk of deportation if they are denied.
"They've been burned pretty bad," he said. "They're not that trusting of the system."
The system was originally intended to get victims out of the shadows and help law enforcement prosecute criminals.
In fiscal 2005, 1,626 immigrant victims of crime applied for the visas. This year, more than 1,400 have applied. The original legislation allowed for as many as 10,000 visas per year.
Regulations for a similar visa for victims of human trafficking, created under the same law, were issued in 2002.
Yolanda Eisenstein, legal director of the Dallas-based Human Rights Initiative, says some immigration advocates have refused to submit applications for clients until final regulations are published.
"People who are here who are [here illegally] are very reluctant to go to the police when bad things happen. If you can help alleviate that fear, then it's a win-win situation," she said. "The person who has been a victim gets some relief ... and they help law enforcement and prosecutors investigate these crimes."
For Mr. Cruz, the stakes are personal. He was in jail for a crime he did not commit during his son's wedding in Mexico. He has never met his daughter-in-law or two granddaughters. He hasn't seen the son in 12 years.
He is still here illegally and lives with the fear of deportation even as he prepares to help the government in Mr. Delapaz's trial.
"Now thank God they're finally responding to us," he said of the visa process.
"Despite the injustice that happened to me, I still feel strong about the opportunities this country offers."