An Amer­i­can dream, then a night­mare

Af­ter a Nor­walk man watches son play in Babe Ruth Lit­tle League World Se­ries, an im­mi­gra­tion check­point changes ev­ery­thing

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Justin Papp

NOR­WALK — It was a trip that was at first eu­phoric, and then dis­as­trous.

Jose Vasquez knew the risks. He un­der­stood that a trip to the U. S.- Mex­i­can bor­der area for some­one in his sit­u­a­tion could have se­ri­ous con­se­quences. He spoke to friends and fam­ily about not mak­ing the trek in Au­gust at all.

But what­ever fear he felt was out­weighed by a de­sire to see his older son, also named Jose, play with his Nor­walk base­ball team in the Babe Ruth Lit­tle League World Se­ries in Ea­gle Pass, Texas.

“I found out where ex­actly the games were tak­ing place. I knew it was so close to Mex­ico,” said Vasquez, who was born in Venezuela and came to Con­necti­cut on a visa 17 years ago. “But I had to go be­cause I didn’t think my son would’ve per­formed the way he did if I hadn’t been there.”

The team placed third in the tour­na­ment, and his son earned a spot on the all- tour­na­ment team for his play in cen­ter field. He was the only player from New Eng­land to re­ceive the honor, and

the boy cred­its his fa­ther as a valu­able teacher from the side­lines.

“I no­tice him a lot when he’s there, telling me what I did wrong, what to do bet­ter. He’s a good coach,” said Jose, a 14- year- old fresh­man at Brien McMa­hon High School, sit­ting in his liv­ing room at home on North Tay­lor Av­enue with his fa­ther and his younger brother, Alan, 11, who clung to Vasquez as they re­counted the events of that week­end.

Af­ter the games had fin­ished and the awards were dis­trib­uted, the younger Jose boarded the bus with his team headed for San An­to­nio In­ter­na­tional Air­port. His fa­ther and younger brother were on a sep­a­rate flight. It was early in the morn­ing of Aug. 17, and the younger Jose nod­ded off dur­ing the more than two- hour bus ride. He was awak­ened by flash­ing lights, and saw that an Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fi­cer had boarded the bus and was ask­ing all the pas­sen­gers if they were U. S. cit­i­zens.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the of­fi­cer left and the bus rolled on, Jose called his fa­ther.

Seek­ing safety, sta­bil­ity

Jose Vasquez, 39, en­tered the coun­try legally on a travel visa in 2001. He had a happy child­hood in the medium- sized coastal city, Puerto Ca­bello, where he learned to play base­ball as a kid. But when he was 13, his fa­ther was mur­dered. As he got older, Venezuela’s high rates of poverty and crime made it an un­sta­ble place to live. It’s got­ten even worse in re­cent years, with wide­spread civil and po­lit­i­cal un­rest.

“I never felt any di­rect threat, but ob­vi­ously I was al­ways fear­ful some­thing might hap­pen to me,” Vasquez said.

In 2001, a Venezue­lan friend who had moved to Nor­walk sug­gested that Vasquez visit Con­necti­cut. He ob­tained a visa and set­tled in Nor­walk. Within a few years, he was work­ing as a house pain­ter, met his wife and had two chil­dren.

“First when I got here, I felt like I ful­filled a dream,” Vasquez said, re­call­ing Amer­i­can movies he had seen in his youth de­pict­ing the coun­try as a land of op­por­tu­nity. But soon he over­stayed his visa.

Ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, there were a lit­tle over 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants in the U. S. in 2014, down from a peak of roughly 12 mil­lion in 2007. They make up less than 4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and, ac­cord­ing to Catalina Ho­rak, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Build­ing One Com­mu­nity, a Stam­ford­based im­mi­grant ser­vice cen­ter, the ma­jor­ity come in legally.

“What most peo­ple don’t un­der­stand is that of the roughly 11 mil­lion un­docu- mented peo­ple in Amer­ica, more than half of them are un­doc­u­mented be­cause they over­stay their visas, not be­cause they came through the bor­der,” Ho­rak said.

The U. S. State Depart­ment is­sues two cat­e­gories of visas: im­mi­grant, given to peo­ple wish­ing to live per­ma­nently in the U. S., and a non- im­mi­grant, is­sued to peo­ple with per­ma­nent res­i­dence out­side the U. S. here on a tem­po­rary ba­sis.

Im­mi­grant visas of­ten re­quire that a prospec­tive mi­grant al­ready have at least a fam­ily mem­ber that is a U. S. cit­i­zen, or an em­ployer that is will­ing to pe­ti­tion on their be­half. Of the more than 10 mil­lion visas is­sued in 2017, only 559,536, roughly 5 per­cent, were of the im­mi­grant va­ri­ety

The vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple look­ing to en­ter the coun­try — al­most 9.7 mil­lion in 2017 — are is­sued one of more than 20 dif­fer­ent types of non- im­mi­grant visa.

“Peo­ple who over­stay their visas are peo­ple who come with a tourist or stu­dent visa. When they en­ter the coun­try, they’re given a stamp and told how many days or months they can stay. If they stay be­yond that date, they be­come un­doc­u­mented,” Ho­rak said. “That’s Jose’s case. Go­ing back to Venezuela is not an op­tion. The rea­son why they re­sort to that is be­cause there are no other le­gal op­tions for them to ap­ply. You can’t just ex­tend. It doesn’t work like that, un­for­tu­nately.”

Be­cause of a 1996 im­mi­gra­tion re­form bill writ­ten by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors and signed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, those who over­stay their visas are sub­ject to mul­ti­year bars from en­try.

Vasquez’s im­mi­gra­tion lawyer, Glenn Formica of New Haven, de­clined to give specifics about his client’s visa, but said that if Vasquez had over­stayed his by six to 12 months, he could be barred for three years. If he over­stayed by more than a year, he could be sub­ject to a 10- year bar. If Vasquez were to be is­sued a de­por­ta­tion or­der, he’d have to make the dif­fi­cult choice of mov­ing his fam­ily to a coun­try in strife, or po­ten­tially not see­ing his wife and kids for up to a decade.

“There re­ally is a very nar­row path to le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that,” Formica said. “All the dra­co­nian im­mi­gra­tion laws that Repub­li­cans and Congress say they want to see, they al­ready have.”

Life- chang­ing check­point

That’s why, when Vasquez heard his son’s voice that morn­ing in Texas, he im­me­di­ately be­came con­cerned about the check­point.

“I was def­i­nitely wor­ried since the phone call, be­cause I knew I was go­ing to drive past it,” Vasquez said.

Around 4 a. m., he and his other son Alan, got in the back seat of a fel­low base­ball par­ent’s car and started the drive to the air­port for their early morn­ing flight.

They were stopped at the check­point. When asked his im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, Vasquez told the truth. He and his son were asked to exit the car and, con­cerned about be­ing sep­a­rated from his son, Vasquez asked re­peat­edly that Alan re­main with him. They were ul­ti­mately trans­ported to a nearby de­ten­tion cen­ter, where for 12 hours they sat to­gether in a cell.

“At that point, I didn’t even know how I felt. All I kept think­ing about the whole time is my son who was with me, and what my fam­ily would do if I was de­ported,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez noted how pro­fes­sional the ICE of­fi­cers were. They fed the Vasquezes, let the fa­ther use his cell­phone and kept the door to their cell open.

“He got very lucky,” said Formica, who was in Texas for a sep­a­rate mat­ter at the same time. “That par­tic­u­lar part of Laredo and Ea­gle Pass, at least when I was there, it was a re­ally nice group of Bor­der Pa­trol. They were not like some other places I’ve had to go.”

Vasquez was told by of­fi­cers, from the be­gin­ning, that be­cause his son was with him and it would be dif­fi­cult for a fam­ily mem­ber to come and pick up Alan, he would likely be re­leased and al­lowed to re­turn to Con­necti­cut to fight his case. They were re­leased that af­ter­noon and re­turned to Nor­walk the next day.

“Ev­ery­body says my son was my guardian an­gel that day,” Vasquez said.

In the months since, Vasquez’s com­mu­nity has ral­lied around him. A GoFundMe page was set up and has raised more than $ 5,000 to cover le­gal ex­penses. Ho­rak and Build­ing One Com­mu­nity have taken on Vasquez’s case and in­tro­duced him to Formica, a lux­ury many im­mi­grants aren’t af­forded.

“There’s an as­tro­nom­i­cal num­ber of peo­ple who go to im­mi­gra­tion court with­out le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” Formica said.

To­gether, Formica and Ho­rak are work­ing to keep Vasquez in the coun­try, where the ma­jor­ity of his fam­ily lives. But the threat of de­por­ta­tion looms large at the Vasquez house.

“I try to stay very, very pos­i­tive for my chil­dren, so they won’t worry,” Vasquez said. “I’m just liv­ing my life. I’m very pos­i­tive ev­ery­thing’s go­ing to work out.”

For his age, Alan is friendly and warm. He spoke ex­cit­edly about the tour­na­ment and the suc­cess of his brother, who he idol­izes, and made cracks at his dad as he ad­justed an Ea­gle Pass base­ball hat to fit his pre- teen head.

“This is my dad’s hat. He has a big head,” Alan laughed. “I hope my head doesn’t get that big.”

But when the con­ver­sa­tion shifted to the hours af­ter the tour­na­ment, and the half- day he spent with his fa­ther in a jail cell, Alan went silent. When prod­ded about the ex­pe­ri­ence, he merely shook his head yes or no. He and his older brother have both tried to block out the more har­row­ing de­tails of the week­end.

But as the con­ver­sa­tion shifted back to base­ball, he ea­gerly ran up­stairs to grab his big brother’s tro­phy and his all- tour­na­ment team bat.

“I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber Ea­gle Pass from the tro­phy, the bat and the hat,” Alan Vasquez said.

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Jose Vasquez, with his sons, Alan, 11, and Jose, 14, at their home in Nor­walk on Wed­nes­day.

Erik Traut­mann / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Jose Vasquez, with his son Jose, 14, on Wed­nes­day at their home in Nor­walk.

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