L.A. Times Today Features Guzman Family: ‘Could he be a good American?’


Cuéntame’s own Iliana Sosa went to Georgia and followed the Guzman family ordeal which will be released in an upcoming two part-series on how private prison CCA profited from a 19 month procedural mistake (Preview Video). Today the L.A. Times features their incredible journey while raising some important questions. Is this the only option for our immigration system? Lock-em up for a profit? – Axel

Photo Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times


By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

June 4, 2011

Reporting from Chapel Hill, N.C. — On a bright Saturday morning, Emily Nelson Guzman packed a beet-red Prius for the journey that would take her once more to Lumpkin, Ga., with its forlorn town square and sleepy barbecue joint and the nation’s largest immigration detention center.

Her husband was there, locked away. Nineteen months earlier, federal agents had arrested him in his yard.

She loaded into the Prius a bag holding the old tight jeans she could finally squeeze into again, the ones she would model so he could see, through the visitation window, how much weight she had lost.

She loaded in another bag, full of action figures — the Shazams and Spider-men and Power Rangers her little boy pretended to be when he fantasized about setting his father free.

The New Latino South

The Latino population in the South has grown dramatically over the last decade. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the lives of Latinos in a changing region.

Pedro Guzman’s bag, a small Old Navy backpack, had already been packed and stowed away in a locker at Stewart Detention Center. It was the only luggage he would be allowed to take to his native Guatemala if a federal immigration judge, in a hearing two days hence, rejected the argument that Pedro had transformed from gang member to good American, a family man who had earned the right to live in the United States.

At the hearing, Emily would have a chance to vouch for his character. So would her mother. So would Pedro himself.

Emily’s mother, Pamela Alberda, brought out a bag of turkey sandwiches from her boyfriend’s house. The boyfriend improvised something on the piano. The music spilled out into the driveway, urgent and sad, like the day itself.

“I really, truly do not know what will happen,” Emily had written on her blog. “He will be freed or sent to a country he does not know.”

She is a family therapist, 34, white and Midwest-born, with a voice as plain as milk. A dozen years ago, she fell in love — and discovered that the object of her affection had been smuggled across the border by his mother when he was 8 years old.

She also discovered that his immigration issue would not be solved by marrying a U.S. citizen.
A wife’s devotion

When Emily met Pedro, he was a sweet kid at a bus stop, a 19-year-old high school dropout on his way to one of his two restaurant jobs, a lost soul who escaped the street life of San Luis Obispo and had gone to Minneapolis hoping for a fresh start.

He had covered up his watch on that first meeting, giving himself an excuse to ask the time. She answered in a confident Spanish perfected during a study-abroad year in Mazatlan.

Soon there was passion and friendship, and trust. He told her about his old life: He had run with a gang, but it was minor-league hooliganism, he assured her. It was San Luis Obispo, after all, not Los Angeles.

There was a small wedding, despite her parents’ initial reservations, and a move to North Carolina. In between came Logan, now 4 years old, with his big brown eyes and head of loose black ringlets and little fists that pounded his mother when his father’s absence drove him to fits.

Emily knew that most women in her position didn’t have the means or the connections to publicize their cases.

But she had her blog, “Bring Pedro Home.” He had been the subject of a postcard campaign and an online petition drive. They had retained an Atlanta lawyer who arrived at hearings in a big silver BMW.

And she had formed alliances with the South’s small core of pro-immigrant activists, the Mennonites and liberation theology types with their earnest bumper stickers and their belief — inspiring to some, naive to others — in a justice that transcends borders.

The drive from North Carolina would take her through a changing South, where pro-Dixie bumper stickers vie for attention with the billboards for restaurants named El Molcajete, and roadside signs like the one in Columbus, Ga., asking, Necesita un Trabajo? Need a Job?

Lumpkin’s Stewart Detention Center is itself a sign of the region’s transformation, with 1,400 detainees, most of them culled from Georgia and the Carolinas, a rotating cast of Juans and Miguels and Manuelitos. Somebody’s father, somebody’s son. The ones who were angels and the ones who should probably be kicked out. The ones who fell somewhere in between.

Activists have targeted the privately run detention center and had held up Pedro, 31, as an example of the kind of good person being ground down by a misguided immigration policy. Emily told them about the injustice of his case — about the judge who declined to grant Pedro legal residency, or even bond, citing two marijuana arrests from when he was a teen.

And yet, despite her allies and advantages, Emily had never felt more pessimistic about Pedro’s case as they rolled out of Chapel Hill. She knew there was a kink in his story of redemption.

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