Arnoldo was 17 when he left his farm laborer parents and four younger brothers and sisters, and made his way from a tiny village in the Mexican state of Puebla to the US border. It was 1994, when getting over the border without arrest by the border patrol in Arizona was hard, and dangerous, but not next to impossible, as it later became. After three arrests and immediate returns to Mexico, he made it over, and took a bus to his uncle’s house in Los Angeles. He found work in restaurants, sent money back to his parents as he had promised to do, and met and married Maribel, who was also undocumented, in Los Angeles. They heard stories about how much easier it was to find work in Seattle, and took a bus north, with their two daughters, in 1999.
Arnoldo worked in restaurants as a prep cook; his English was never good enough to be a server, and his passion for cooking never strong enough to want to endure the pressure of being a chef. He and Maribel had four more children by 2005. Maribel took care of the children while Arnoldo worked day shift, and he took care of them while she worked the evening shift at a fish processing plant. Money was tight, their apartment small, and the six children had their needs. Sometimes Maribel and Arnoldo argued, but they never came to blows. They had converted to Mormonism shortly after coming to Seattle, and both of them found solace in the teachings, and an outlet in the parents’ groups they attended.
One day in 2010, when Arnoldo had just been fired, for the third time in three years for not having a valid work permit, he and Maribel shouted at each other about who was going to clean the apartment: Maribel who worked full-time at the plant, or Arnoldo, who was home with the children. The argument had its foundation in other issues, as well. Maribel couldn’t understand why he kept getting fired, since she herself had never been called to the plant office to prove her legal status. She suspected he wasn’t a good worker. She also resented that she was the primary cook and cleaner, even now when Arnoldo wasn’t working. Arnoldo knew that Maribel thought he was lazy, and that rankled, since he believed he was working as hard as he could to take care of the children. He pointed out to her that he was the one who spent time with the children on their homework, and that without him, they wouldn’t be doing as well as they were in school.
They shouted at each other, and the children cried. Their new neighbor, who heard everything through the thin apartment walls, called the police to report that there was a fight going on. When the police arrived, they arrested Arnoldo, even though Maribel and Arnoldo both tried to explain that Arnoldo had not been violent. Their lack of English skills had never hurt them so much before. They had no idea what would happen next, and the police could not explain it, either.
Arnoldo was booked into jail in downtown Seattle, and charged with domestic violence assault. He stayed three days before he met with the public defender assigned to his case. In those three days, other Spanish-speaking inmates advised him to plead guilty, since it was the only way to get out of jail quickly. Arnoldo asked his defense attorney about the process, but couldn’t understand him well. He thought the attorney said that the choice was to stay in jail and go to trial, which would take about six months, or plead guilty and get out in about a week. The attorney didn’t ask Arnoldo what had happened. He was in a hurry, since he had several other clients to see. If Arnoldo had been able to speak to his attorney, he would have told him that he hadn’t hit Maribel. Arnoldo would have called Maribel to come to court during his arraignment. She would have told the judge that it had been only an oral argument, and that she wasn’t afraid of Arnoldo. The case would have likely been dismissed.
Arnoldo went to his arraignment and pled guilty. He was sentenced to one year of jail, with 360 days suspended, and credit for the five days he had already been jailed. The judge ordered him to pay $2000 in court costs and fines. Then, just when jail staff were processing Arnoldo for release, Immgiration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) notified the jail that they had a hold on Arnoldo, and would take him within the next three days to immigration detention. Arnoldo was detained a month before friends at the family’s church could raise money to pay the immigration bond so Arnoldo could get out while awaiting his deportation proceedings.
Two years after his arrest, Arnoldo had his immigration court hearing to determine if he would be able to stay in the country. He had to prove three things: ten years of physical presence in the United States, good moral character, and exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to his children if he were to be deported, if they had to live without him in the US, or live with him in Mexico.
His immigration attorney had explained how hard it was to prove such a high standard – exceptional and extremely unusual hardship. She told him and Maribel that the “ordinary” hardship of separation from their father would not be enough. The “ordinary” hardship of living in Mexico without the same quality of life, without reading and writing Spanish, and in poverty would not be enough. There must be other reasons that the children would suffer, far beyond what other children would suffer if they had to go to Mexico in order to keep the family together.
There was a hope: Mario, their ten year old, was in special education classes for his delays in reading and in math. If Mario had to live in Mexico, he would not get a chance to have such help in the countryside where he would live with his parents. This just might win the case, the attorney told them, if Arnoldo could win on the character issue. The domestic violence conviction would weigh heavily against a finding that he had good character. Only ten percent of the people who asked for this relief from deportation got it, but in Arnoldo’s case, he had no choice. It was either try or get deported.
During the hearing, the government prosecutor, a young man, cross-examined Arnoldo about the domestic violence charge, When Arnoldo said he hadn’t hit Maribel, the prosecutor was disbelieving. “Why would you ever, ever plead guilty when you weren’t?” he asked Arnoldo. Arnoldo answered, “Everyone knows that if you plead guilty you get out of jail, and if you say you are innocent, it will take months to have a trial that you may lose. My family needed me.” The prosecutor was silent for a moment, then said, “No further questions.” The judge gave Arnoldo legal residence.
The conviction for domestic violence was the means for Arnoldo to get his residence. If he had not been arrested, he would not have been in immigration court where he could fight for his legal status. Sometimes he thought about bad leading to good, and felt lucky. But sometimes he thought it just as likely for good to lead to bad. On the whole, he thought it prudent to avoid any further contact with the legal system.