Gabino Sanchez's deportation case isn't very different from the 330,000 others pending across the country. But that's why it's gotten so much attention.
Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant and father of two boys, both U.S. citizens, was taken to jail after police caught him without a license in November near his trailer home in Ridgeland, S.C. Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez heard about Sanchez's case and found him a lawyer. Gutierrez also organized a rally in March outside of Charlotte's Immigration Court, where a federal judge is hearing Sanchez's case.
Gutierrez, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Task Force on Immigration, is using the case to emphasize the importance and necessity of the deportation recommendations President Barack Obama announced last year. Under the president's guidelines, the Department of Homeland Security should prioritize cases involving violent criminals above those belonging to peaceful individuals.
"The congressman picked Sanchez's story not because it was so special but because it was so typical," said Gutierrez's spokesman Douglas Rivlin.
Sanchez, 27, immigrated to the U.S. from Tierra Blanca in the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1999. He paid a coyote — a smuggler — to take him across the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona. A van then drove him to South Carolina, where he's lived since.
"We were from a poor family, and there isn't any money [in Mexico]," Sanchez said. "So I wanted to come make a living for myself."
Sanchez lives in a trailer park in a suburb of Columbia. Despite his undocumented status, he drives to his construction and gardening jobs every day. "There isn't a bus here," Sanchez said. "And I work 45 minutes away, so I can't not drive."
His choice to drive has led to seven traffic stops, mostly at check points established by local police to verify vehicle registration. Sanchez said he was only asked for his driver's license at the first few stops. However, the last time he was pulled over, after rolling past a stop sign in his trailer park in November, Sanchez was taken to jail. While there, his residency status was questioned over the phone by someone whom Sanchez believed to be an immigration officer, though he didn't identify himself until the end of their conversation.
"The pretext they gave for the stop was that he failed to stop at a stop sign," said Marty Rosenbluth, executive director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project. "But he wasn't actually charged with that. Can I prove it was racial profiling? Probably not, but it certainly set off all the alarm bells." Rosenbluth became Sanchez's lawyer after Gutierrez brought the case to the attorney's attention.
"We're deporting all these noncriminals and essentially don't have the bandwidth to deport folks we really want to have out of our communities who are violent criminals," said Gutierrez's spokesman Rivlin.
Some sort of reform is necessary, the senator argued in an editorial he wrote for The Huffington Post. He called on DHS and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau to drop the case, but those departments denied the request because of Sanchez's multiple misdemeanor convictions for driving without a license, he wrote.
If the case is not dropped before his next court date, on May 15, Sanchez's only hope is to successfully argue for cancellation of removal, which requires proving four points: that he's lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years continuously, that he has good moral character and that he's never been convicted of an offense that would make him ineligible. The fourth, proving his deportation would cause "an extreme and highly unusual hardship to a U.S. citizen," is harder to show.
"Only 4,000 cases each year are granted for cancellation, in a whole country of 11 million people that are undocumented," said George Miller, a partner at Dozier, Miller, Pollard & Murphy LLP and a professor at the Charlotte School of Law. "Those aren't very good odds. Maybe they will argue these small children will be taken to a foreign country and that it may be hell where they are going, where there is no opportunity."
But Sanchez's children might not have a choice. Their mother doesn't want to return to Mexico for fear of a drug war that has killed thousands, but she cannot support their two boys alone. If Sanchez is deported, he said he will take his children.
"They're not just deporting people. They're deporting families," he said.
If Sanchez prevails in court, he will receive a work permit, but his legal situation wouldn't be resolved.
Communities in South Carolina and North Carolina comply with harsh immigration laws that are intended to persecute any level of immigrant, criminal or not. In Mecklenburg County, the "sheriff's department has deputies that have been trained by ICE to determine whether someone is documented or not," Miller said. "Then these people are detained and put in removal proceedings." Gutierrez wrote in his editorial that he was told the Department of Homeland Security would not hold minor traffic violations against immigrants. He was also told the department would not be a "conduit" for those targeted by racial profiling at the municipal law-enforcement level.
In a way, Sanchez is lucky. Most individuals facing deportation do not have the assistance of legal counsel since it is not guaranteed in immigration proceedings.
Miller stands by some large metal drawers in his office in mid-March. "His case is heartbreaking, but you want some more?" he asks as he pulls open one of the drawers filled with case files. "I've got plenty."