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Anne Stanton - February 14th, 2011
The story of Serafin Mendoza: ‘Why did we pick out this guy?’
By Anne Stanton
Serafin Mendoza, an undocumented worker from Mexico, was moved early last week to a new jail cell in Battle Creek, his last move in an odyssey of jail cells since his arrest three months ago. His attorney expects that officials from Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) will decide his final fate next week.
Mendoza will either stay in this country or be deported to Mexico. The decision is in the hands of a few people, and Traverse City immigration attorney Joanna Kloet is hoping that public sentiment will encourage them to let him stay—a decision, she admits, that would be nearly miraculous in a heart-wrenching case.
There are millions of undocumented workers in the same fix as Mendoza, but this stout, hard-working cherry orchard worker has earned the compassion of many who have followed his story in Traverse City.

Mendoza, 34, first arrived in the U.S. in 1993. About eight years later, he came to Northern Michigan seeking work at the orchard of Josh Wunsch, an articulate and scholarly looking Old Mission Peninsula farmer who speaks not only in full sentences, but full paragraphs. To get to his farmhouse, you must drive 18 miles down a picturesque peninsula where subdivisions of over-sized mansions and shoreline cottages give way to fields of cherry trees and grape vines.
“If there is any validity to the concept that Serafin was taking someone’s job, I am still waiting for that person to show up,” Wunsch said. “We have hired three people, and they were never able to match what Serafin was able to do. But what we miss is not so much his contribution in getting the work done, or understanding the business or the special skill set, we miss him. It’s almost like a death. We miss him for the positive energy that he brought to the enterprise, the morale boosting he would do, the example he set, to show up first and leave last, and to be the most particular of how something was done. The feeling is, none of this is really necessary.”
Mendoza was 24 years old when he first met Wunsch, who was surprised by his Yooper accent he had picked up at an Ishpeming fruit market where he learned to speak English. Mendoza soon became one of Wunsch’s most prized employees, quickly catching on to the work specific to orchards—mixing chemicals, spraying trees, pruning trees, fixing machinery and serving as a bilingual crew leader in summer.

Wunsch met Mendoza in 2001, a key year in the young man’s life. Not only did he start a new job, he also married Jo Ann Diaz, a woman six years his senior who shared his strong work ethic. She put in long hours as an inspector at Peninsula Fruit Exchange right down the road and caring for her young daughter, Ciera.
After they married, Serafin and Jo Ann decided he would seek a green card to become a legal resident so the couple could raise their family here in the U.S. He had crossed the border illegally at the age of 17. The paperwork challenge had been too complex and expensive for him to surmount. He told Wunsch that his much older brothers had an easier time of gaining legal status in the early 1990s, a time when they could freely cross back and forth over the Mexican border to work in the Texas farm fields.
Mendoza was advised to seek out legal advice from a lawyer in Detroit because that’s where the immigration courts were located. The effort went nowhere.
“The lawyer took his money, all of his credentials, including the marriage certificate for him and Jo Ann, and disappeared without a word. This same lawyer showed up some time much later in a jail cell in Los Angeles,” said Wunsch during a long interview in his older and spotless farmhouse that overlooks a cherry orchard.
In July of 2001, the couple gave birth to a dark-eyed daughter, Serena.  Wunsch recalls that Serena’s birth was the first time he met Jo Ann, whom he hired a couple of years later to care for his very ill mother in her final days.
In 2003, Mendoza hired another attorney, this one out of Grand Rapids. He was told that in order to petition for citizenship, he would have to leave the country and live in Mexico for at least a year. Leaving the United States in order to lawfully re-enter through the American consulate is a requirement (see sidebar) for anyone who has previously crossed the border illegally.
So Mendoza dutifully returned to Mexico, while Jo Ann stayed to raise the two girls alone.  Yet there was trouble with this lawyer too. Jo Ann filled out the paperwork, paid the attorney fees, and waited. And waited. Fourteen months went by and the communications lines were silent. Finally, Jo Ann drove down to Grand Rapids to see what was going on.
“The office was closed!” Wunsch said. “No one was there! The lawyer had gotten news of a hearing, but never communicated it to Jo Ann. This puts the chronology to a dead stop. We are now at 14 months, and the clock has to start ticking all over again.”
Incidentally, this attorney, Jose Sandoval, was convicted last year of obstructing justice in a federal court, characterized as a “serial liar,” and disbarred, according to a Grand Rapids Press article.

Meanwhile, Mendoza was finding it hard to trust the petition process, deeming it a “lousy trick.” He missed his family and, moreover, couldn’t find a job. He was frustrated that he couldn’t help out Jo Ann, who had to start borrowing money to make her car payments. So he borrowed $2,000 from his sister to hire a “coyote” (smuggler) to help him get back into the country. After a smooth trip over the border, he arrived in Dallas, where he headed straight to the library to email Jo Ann to come pick him up. Two days later, the family joyously celebrated his return in their Old Mission Peninsula farmhouse.
The celebration was short lived. Two days after arriving home—on July 12, 2005—Jo Ann was found dead at work. She had drowned, according to the death certificate, in an enormous wooden vat of cherries and brine, apparently having fallen from the hatch where she typically would bend down to get a sample of the brine with a dipper.  (Peninsula Fruit now has bars around the hatches to block falls). The date of her death was the eve of her daughter’s third birthday.
Wunsch hypothesized that Jo Ann had suffered a diabetic seizure, precipitated by the long drive to and from Texas and the sugary treats from the joyful reunion. During the following days of shock and disruption, a letter arrived from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  “Dear Mrs. Mendoza, Your petition was approved.” The letter was dated two days before she died and just around the time that Mendoza had illegally crossed the border.
“Had Serafin waited but a week, their whole cosmos would have changed,” Wunsch said. “All the good deeds, all the money they had spent on lawyers, all the positive outcomes were nullified because he re-entered illegally.”
Mendoza decided to take his chances and remain in Traverse City to work and care for Serena (Jo Ann’s daughter, Ciera, went to live with relatives). In part, he felt he had nothing to lose. He couldn’t find work in Mexico and believed that Serena was too crushed by her mother’s death to transition to a new country. Mendoza’s decision to stay was made in a gentler political time when the Immigration Service seemed to deport only those who had committed a crime.  (Mendoza, in fact, was once cited in 2000 for drunk driving, which triggered his decision to never drink again.)

Life went on for Mendoza and was uneventful in the best sense of the word. Fast forward to a Christmas party in 2008. Mendoza met Mindy Aguilar, a single mom who was finding it very difficult to support her three young sons, ages 7, 2, and 1, on a meager salary. She was also enrolled full-time at Davenport University, earning a business degree online.
“I just felt that he had been sent to me, that it was supposed to be because, here I was struggling with my three boys; he didn’t seem to struggle with his daughter—they had a great relationship—but he kept mentioning, she needs a mom, a woman in her life. I have a daughter who needs a mother and I have three boys, who need a father,” said Aguilar in an interview last week at the Traverse City Area District Library.
Life transformed for Aguilar, who could now study and more easily travel for her Red Cross job (she runs the Service to the Armed Forces program).
“He knows how to fix anything. He is always doing something. If he’s not doing something, he’s going crazy. He’s out with the animals, out with the kids, mowing the lawn or doing housework. He would do the dinner dishes, and the whole bedtime routine so I could do my homework, and not have to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. He supported me in any way possible, with my ill mother, my career, my college degree, and our kids.”

On November 10 in the late afternoon, Mendoza was pruning trees with his nephew. His dog, Click, noticed two strangers walking up. One of the men asked if he was Serafin Mendoza. He didn’t think anything of it, and said, “I am. What can I do for you?”
The men were officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency and quickly handcuffed the two men. Fifteen other suspected illegal immigrants were also picked up in Traverse City, Lake City and Cadillac, including three  at the Agave Mexican Grill and Cantina, according to a Traverse City Record-Eagle article.
Soon after Mendoza was handcuffed, Aguilar got a phone call that appeared to be coming from him.
“I was at the hospital, and my mom was having surgery. She has renal (kidney) deficiency, stage five, and the only thing keeping her alive is dialysis,” she said. “I thought it was Serafin calling to see how my mom was doing, so I answered in Spanish. It wasn’t him. It was an ICE agent, and he told me that Serafin was being arrested at the house, and I needed to come to take custody of Serena. I didn’t know what to do. I was in shock.”
Aguilar dropped her four kids off with her sister, and drove straight to the farmhouse, where she spotted two cop cars and several unmarked vehicles.
“Serafin and his nephew were both at the kitchen table, both with handcuffs. There were agents standing all over in the dining room. There had to be six of them, and they told me that they had a warrant, because Serafin had failed to return to Mexico pursuant to the grant of voluntary departure years earlier.
“They made me go back to my car for an ID, for the consent form to take custody of Serena. Then they just took him and let his nephew go. He kept saying, ‘Don’t stop calling me and don’t cry.’ He thought he would be deported right away. He told me to help take care of the animals,” Aguilar said.
Wunsch concedes that the ICE had a job to do, their assignment stemming from a badly written law (see sidebar). He credits them for allowing a smooth transition of Serena’s custody to Aguilar.  “They could have thrown Serena into the courts, and then we would have had to retrieve two of our lifeboat passengers instead of just one,” he said.
The ICE agents noted that Mendoza had two hunting rifles at the farmhouse used to keep varmints away from the orchard. He was later criminally charged with possessing a firearm without a license. Although U.S. citizens don’t need a license for a hunting rifle, it’s illegal for both visa holders and undocumented workers to possess or own one.
Mendoza, who was something of a cowboy (he could only remember one toy from childhood, and it was a truck with a horse trailer and horses), owned two horses, a dog, as well as pigs and chickens. After he was seized, Aguilar has had to cope with the animals, four children, and the complexities of immigration law.
Mendoza was judged guilty of the weapons charge, but was sentenced last week to the time he had already served since he was taken into immediate custody by federal agents. Aguilar was relieved, although the guilty conviction, along with his two previous illegal border crossings, makes it unlikely that he will be able to come back into the country for at least another 10 years unless ICE gives him special dispensation to stay. In particular, those who cross the border illegally more than once are subject to a 10-year ban from entering the U.S. again on any grounds.
Aguilar, fearing that Mendoza will be deported, is selling the two horses, and had the pigs and chickens butchered. She is trying to save money for airline tickets, but with little success since much of her time has been devoted to trying to visit Mendoza and spending time with lawyers. And applying for passports and visas.
Aguilar isn’t crazy about going to Mexico since none of their four children speak Spanish or know the Mexican culture. School will be especially difficult for the oldest child, who has a learning disability and now receives specialized education.  She worries about losing her close connection with her family. And she fears that the crime in some areas of Mexico—child abductions for ransom—is frightening. But what she’s most concerned about is how her mother will fare.
 “I do feel guilty about leaving my mom. I take her to dialysis, all the doctors’ appointments, I fill her pill box, I’m over there every day, before and after work and sometimes both,” she said. “I’m not afraid of going—we’re not going to live anywhere near the border, that’s why we have to fly in. Serafin says Mexico is more laid back. I’ll have time to breathe.”

Wunsch is despondent over the outcome of events.
“Why is this necessary? What are we doing? What brand of Kool-Aid are we on today to conclude that what we’re doing with a hard worker and a good parent and a good, well-behaved guy is somehow going to have a happy result for one and all? Serafin is caught up in a much larger stream of events and opinions. But when we reduce it down to the basics, it just doesn’t seem like such a thing would be possible that we’d contrive and then support an approach that would separate a surviving parent from his child and deprive him of the opportunity to make a contribution to pursue a livelihood,
“Serafin made a conscious effort to get himself established legally, he has put a lot of money and energy and ingenuity into achieving that. He is not a graduate of anybody’s law school. He’s not an experienced barrister or bureaucrat; he does not know the ins and outs of the very peculiar and arcane bureaucratic system that is in many ways stacked against him, but he’ll grind it out. Over the period of a decade, he has watched lawyers come and go with his money and documents, and provided him with nothing. He has rallied, and has tried again. The way you feel about it is very sad, it’s really hard to find something that Serafin did that was willfully malicious. You look at the nastiness that goes on, that people get by with, and you just scratch your head. Why did we pick out this guy to get the torture?”
Comments about this case can be made to your U.S. representative or senator or in letters to the Express and your area newspapers.  They can also be  made to Detroit Field Office Area of Responsibility, ICE, 333 Mt. Elliott St., Detroit., MI  48207.  
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