The family of a 22-year-old man who was born in Mexico, but has spent most of his life in Petaluma is racing the clock to prevent him from being deported and are asking local leaders for help.
On Monday, a federal immigration prosecutor will decide the fate of Fernando Diaz Diaz, a Petaluma man who came to the U.S. when he was six years old, attended Petaluma High School and, a year ago, married a local girl.
But after Diaz’s fingerprints were lifted off a stolen car—his attorney says he merely touched the rearview mirror because he wanted to take the mirror for his own car—he was arrested and his name entered into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities database, which identified him as an illegal immigrant.
“Diaz did not steal anything, neither vehicle nor mirror,” said his attorney Richard Coshnear, who is asking immigration officials to exercise discretion in considering the case. If he’s not successful, Diaz will be deported by the end of January, unless he leaves on his own before that.
“People tell me I should go back to my country, but this is my country,” Diaz said. “I have friends here, I went to school here, I’m not a criminal, so why am I being taken out of this country? I feel a little betrayed because isn’t this what the U.S. is known for; it's supposed to be the melting pot of cultures.”
Diaz’s family is now scrambling to get Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s help in overturning the order and using any other means to keep their son from being returned to Mexico.
“My daughter is in tears and Fernando is scared,” said his mother-in-law Susan Villa. “He knows no one there. Yes, he speaks the language, but he doesn’t have close family there. I don’t know what he’ll do.”
Diaz can be sponsored by his American wife, Shiniade, 23, but because he entered the country illegally when he immigrated with his family, he must return to Mexico and wait ten years before applying for a visa. If his case is not dismissed Monday, Fernando will likely leave on his own, instead of being deported, in order to have a better chance of re-entering the country, says his family.
Still, ten years is a long time, especially since Diaz and Shiniade Villa were just married last July and would be separated for an unknown amount of time if he were deported.
“He was brought here as a child and was educated, worked and paid taxes in this country,” Susan Villa said. “The laws are cruel and it’s amazing what goes on and until it hits you, you have no idea. Hopefully with enough people speaking out…maybe Fernando can stay.”
The number of deportations of undocumented immigrants has skyrocketed under the Obama administration, which has deported an estimated 400,000 people over the past year, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. That’s more than the number of people deported in any single year during George W. Bush’s presidency.
This June, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton issued a memo directing agents and prosecutors to focus on deporting people who had committed other crimes besides entering the country illegally.
But immigration attorneys like Coshnear have been dismayed to find that prosecutors in deportation cases have not been willing to consider extenuating circumstances, like the amount of time a person has lived in the U.S., their ties to a community and whether they pose a risk to national security or public safety.
"I don't know if the Obama directive is being ignored or is disingenous from the start," Coshnear said. "It feels like a way to give a velvet glove to the iron fist of deportation."
Fernando Diaz says he never imagined having to go back—well, maybe on vacation--and still can’t get his head around moving back to Mexico.
“It’s so overwhelming to think about it, especially knowing that your destiny lies in the hands of just one person,” he says.