Open Letter to an Immigration Judge

February 14, 2007

To:  The Honorable Immigration Judge,

I’m a 2nd grade Two-Way Spanish Immersion (TWI) teacher at Rosa Parks school in Berkeley.  Today is Valentine’s Day.  It was my last day with one of my top students, Gerardo Espinoza.  His father, Felipe Espinoza Senior, received an order of deportation and is moving the family to Mexico to comply with the law.  Gerardo is a stunning seven-year old, with unusually wide, round brown eyes, a cute little nose, full lips, and round pale baby cheeks — the kind of child that Japanese anime depict.   He’s wedded to a knit cap.  The behavior of Gerardo and his brother Felipe, whom I taught nearly a decade ago, has been an example to everyone, including myself.  They are both reasons why I love my job.  Whenever I had difficult students, I’d seat them in a group with Gerardo or Felipe for a month and their behavior would improve tremendously.  I attribute the brothers’ outstanding comportment in large part to their close-knit family, especially the loving care of their mother, Norma, who spends every lunch time with Gerardo.

Honorable Sir, I do not understand why Gerardo and his other brother José are being denied their rights as U.S. citizens to an education and parents, both;  why, under the law, they are forced to choose.  My colleagues and I envisioned their winning scholarships at U.C. Berkeley, eventually lifting them up to the middle class.  Like their children, their parents are also model — I’d like to say citizens — but they’ve been denied this.  Your honor is probably aware that their former attorney, Walter Pineda, was exposed on the news for defrauding immigrants and aiding in their deportation.  He was disbarred on November 1, 2006, State Bar No. 97293.

Felipe Espinoza Senior has lived in the United States for 20 years.  His wife Norma, has lived here for 14.  Felipe Sr. has worked five to six days a week in jobs from Skates by the Bay to a steel mill in Oakland.  Today, when he dropped by for Gerardo’s farewell Valentine party, in which the other students read him their going away valentines,  I commented that I hadn’t seen him since Felipe Jr.’s conference a decade ago.  Felipe Senior still looked about the same: like a well-groomed, dignified banker or professional.  “I’ve been working,” he said, which I knew was an understatement.  He is the sole provider for a family of five, six if we include his former exorbitant lawyer, Pineda.

Felipe Senior has always done everything by the book.  He has always paid his taxes, car registration and insurance.  He followed the letter of the law to apply for citizenship.  And this, your honor, is what I don’t understand.  According to the SF Weekly (“The Asylum Trap” by Eliza Strickland, May 10, 2006), immigrants are more likely to slip through the eye of a needle than they are to receive asylum or residency.  Only 34 asylum applications were granted to Mexican immigrants nationwide.  San Francisco Attorney Enrique Ramirez observes that immigrants can also apply for residency through work visas or petitions by family members who are residents.  Mr. Espinoza was misled by Pineda, apparently like countless others, into falling for the “the ten-year pardon,” or cancellation of removal, though as you know less than 4,000 of these cases have been granted each year.  Now I ask you, what is the goal of a system which punishes the vast majority of those who follow the letter of the law and which rewards those who manage to keep their identities off the books?

The Espinozas met two of the three requirements needed for Mr. Espinoza’s cancellation of removal to Mexico: 1.) 10 years of continuous presence in the U.S. and 2.) proof of “good moral character” including a clean police record.  But Pineda didn’t bother to convince the judge that Felipe Espinoza ‘s deportation would cause 3.)  “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a spouse, parent, or child who is either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident — namely Gerardo and José.

Immigrations lawyers have since informed me that Mr. Espinoza likely lost his appeal because immigration judges believe Gerardo’s rights as a citizen are not being violated since he is free to stay in the country himself — in foster care.  (His mother has never worked and his father would be unable to support them from Mexico.)  The lawyers tell me that no immigration judge would recognize tearing a child away from his parents and placing him or her in foster care as an “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.”  Dear Honorable Sir, have you and your colleagues really become so hardened?  Is the reason that you believe such a trauma is not “unusual” because you have caused such horrendous circumstances to become the norm among this population, rather than the exception?

If so, dear Honorable Immigration Judge, my question to you is, how can I go on teaching about equal rights and freedom of speech and all the things that our constitution is supposed to defend, and that the very name of our school is supposed to represent, when the father of my students is deported simply because his skin is darker?  Both my Latino and white students are U.S. citizens.  So how do I explain to the class that one has the right to a family in the United States and the other citizens do not?  Do you think they’ll understand why Felipe and Gerardo’s parents cannot gain citizenship in a country in which they’ve lived for 20 years and in which their children were born, yet it is all right for U.S. citizens to buy up all the beach front property in the Espinozas’ motherland?  Do you think such an incident is going to convince my students and their families that the United States is the compassionate model of democracy for the rest of the world?    

Dear Honorable Judge, I ask you, what are you and your colleagues doing to shatter or foment these dreams and ideals?

The last time I saw Gerardo, I asked him to let me make a video so I could remember him.  He stands below the letters that read Rosa Parks School and recites by heart our Rosa Parks school pledge, which he and I still believe:

“To this day, I believe, we are here on this planet earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for ALL people to enjoy freedom.”

I’d like to conclude with a poem Gerardo wrote for his parents for their Christmas present.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Margot Pepper


Oh Mamá and Papá,
Without you,

I’d never be able to

cook or eat your enchiladas again;

we wouldn’t play “trains” together anymore,
or go to the park

without you.

Without you,

I wouldn’t be able to have any fun;

I wouldn’t be able to feel even the breeze anymore,

or love;

I wouldn’t have anyone to play with

without you.

Without you, I’d be as lonely as a baby abandoned

and left to cry alone in a house,

As sad as a little bird

that can no  longer sing.

by Gerardo Espinoza, Age 7
© December 2006
Written in a Christmas/holiday card to his parents

Margot Pepper is a journalist and author whose work has been published by the Utne Reader, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Monthly Review, Hampton Brown, and others.  Her memoir, Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, was nominated for the 2006 American Book Award.

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