OPED: Immigrants face the death of a dream

James Goodman
Tribune News Service

Even the judge who presided over Macario Gilberto Reyes-Herrera's case considered the outcome unfair.

Despite accepting a guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa praised Reyes-Herrera for living the "American Dream" and then added, "I hope, by some miracle, you can be allowed to stay."

This happened Jan. 24 in federal court in Rochester, N.Y. Reyes-Herrera, 51, pleaded guilty to illegal re-entry to the United States, a felony. I was there as a reporter who covers immigration issues. It felt like I was a witness to an execution — the death of a dream.

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A week later, during his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump pledged to defend the right of Americans to the American Dream because "Americans are dreamers, too." But what about the dreams of people like Reyes-Herrera?

According to a 2014 New York State Police Executive Memorandum, troopers are not supposed to use traffic stops as a pretext to detain undocumented immigrants. But in Trump's America, arrests are more important than rules.

Reyes-Herrera was a passenger, wearing his seatbelt, in a vehicle pulled over in a traffic stop last June 29 in the state's Finger Lakes region. He ended up in the custody of the Border Patrol and has been detained ever since.

He pleaded guilty after the U.S. Attorney's Office refused to reduce his charge to a misdemeanor. "I don't have any options," Reyes-Herrera said before agreeing to the plea.

After toiling in the fields of western New York for almost 27 years, Reyes-Herrera is now among the undocumented immigrants being held at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in the town of Batavia. Deportation hangs over his head.

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As I reported in the February/March issue of The Progressive, in a story now available online, the use of detention has increased dramatically under Trump. In fact, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford, a colleague of Siragusa's, recently concluded that the government was violating its own rules with its excessive use of detention.

Reyes-Herrera, who suffers from asthma, described in court how he grew up in Mexico so poor that he didn't have enough to eat. He worked as a child to help support his family and dropped out of school before he was a teen.

He did not cross the Mexican border in 1991 to commit crimes, but rather to work 13-hour days to raise a family. He helped put his daughter through college; his oldest son will soon graduate from college and his youngest, in middle school, made the honor roll.

In the world of Trump, Reyes-Herrera is getting what he deserves, having been deported once already in 2006. But do the millions of undocumented residents who have worked hard to be good citizens and provide for their families really deserve to be treated this way?

"What happened on June 29, 2017, was the nightmare that so many immigrant families fear," said Carly Fox, an organizer with the Worker Justice Center of New York, addressing Reyes-Herrera's supporters before they entered the courthouse for his recent appearance. In a letter to Siragusa, Reyes-Herrera's wife explained the devastating effects of the traffic stop.

"My youngest son asks me every day if his daddy will come back home," she writes. "I cannot answer that question and am quiet."

— James Goodman is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y. Goodman wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.