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April 20, 2008 -- Houston Chronicle (TX)

Cold As ICE: A Story Of Family Values

By Rick Casey

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Mauricio Barragan, whose parents brought him here from Bolivia when he was 1 year old, had a bad year when he was 17.

He got a girl pregnant.

And he was convicted and received deferred adjudication for possessing a small amount of marijuana, a Class B misdemeanor. Earlier he had a juvenile drug conviction at age 15.

During the next eight years, Barragan, now 26, completed his marijuana probation successfully. He graduated in the top quarter of his Katy High School class.

He worked for nearly eight years at Target, rising to team leader in the electronics section before leaving for another job. He was described by his Target supervisor as "the kind of leader that any aspiring business would want on their team."

He faithfully paid child support and provided medical insurance for his son and has been an active father to him, spending weekends with him. He and the boy's mother have remained friends.

College Student

He helped buy a house where he and his sister live with his disabled father and his mother. He paid half the monthly mortgage and utilities. And he earned enough credits at the University of Houston to be a senior with a dual major of biology and journalism. Meanwhile he and his sister, both legal residents, applied for citizenship, which his parents already acquired.

If we were looking for a poster boy for the criminal justice system working to turn a misbehaving youth around, Barragan would be our man. But in February 2007, Mauricio, who is a legal resident and had applied to join his parents as a citizen, was stopped for a traffic citation and found to have a suspended driver's license.

Back to Bolivia?

A check by the officer turned up the drug charge. Any past drug conviction now requires that an alien, even one here legally, be held. So Barragan was taken to jail.

But if the drug conviction is for less than 30 grams of marijuana, a judge can rule that the legal alien can stay if his deportation would cause "extreme hardship" -- not to him, but to an immediate relative.

So Barragan was locked up for eight months in a privately run jail operated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while the government gathered evidence to have him deported to Bolivia, which he had not seen since he was a baby and where he has no relatives.

In October, an immigration judge held a hearing in which Barragan's lawyer presented evidence of "extreme hardship," which would justify a waiver from extradition for a previous adult drug offense.

The hardship, by law, does not apply to the potential deportee. It applies only to immediate relatives. With every politician in America talking about "family values," you might think that the courts would easily rule that it is an extreme hardship for a 9-year-old boy to be deprived of a father who was shown to be an active and supportive parent.

You would be wrong. So Barragan's lawyer, Michael Rojas, put on evidence of hardship on Barragan's son, Angel, including a psychologist's testimony that the trauma of losing his father had sent the boy into clinical depression.

Angel is a gifted-and-talented 4th-grader, but his mother, Tina Lara, said his grades began to suffer. "The psychologist said there are a lot of anger issues, and putting the anger in the wrong place," she said. In addition, Barragan's financial assistance had enabled her to work part-time. With him incarcerated, she had to work full-time, taking time away from Angel.

"The judge told me I wasn't suffering financial hardship," Lara said. "It was all about money. I told him if Mauricio never gave me another penny Angel would still need him."

Mauricio's parents also needed him. With a bad back and diabetes, Jorge Barragan cannot work. His wife, Margarita, taught in public schools for years and now teaches Spanish privately. Without Mauricio's payments they could not keep up the mortgage. Foreclosure proceedings were started while he was incarcerated.

In addition, the strain of having his son jailed and facing deportation worsened Jorge's condition. It was on the basis of the financial hardship on Mauricio's parents that the judge agreed to grant him a waiver, reinstating his legal status and ability to work.

Mauricio was ready to celebrate. But the government said it might appeal, so he was taken back to prison. On the last day of the 30-day limit, James Manning, assistant chief counsel of ICE's Houston office, filed a notice of appeal. That would mean another five months of incarceration for Barragan, another five months of fear for his family and depression and anger for Angel.

This story has a happy ending, but that, together with further details and observations, will require another column.

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