Deportation Shatters Family
Tragedy: Teenager kills himself after his father--a legal U.S. resident for 29 years--is sent to Colombia because of $10 marijuana sale in 1989. Grieving mother struggles with effects of strict new U.S. policy.
By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL, Times Staff Writer
Gerardo Anthony Mosquera Jr. was a good boy in a tough neighborhood, his parents say. He took his studies seriously, enjoyed sports, stayed away from drugs and worked after school to help support his struggling family, which included three younger siblings and an infant son.
That the 17-year-old junior at Bell Gardens High School would put a bullet through his brain still seems inconceivable, says his distraught family, except for one painful fact: Gerardo had been despondent since his father--Gerardo Antonio Mosquera Sr., a legal resident of the United States for 29 years--was deported in December back to his native Colombia, part of a rising nationwide tide of such expulsions. The father was removed because of a 1989 conviction for selling a $10 bag of marijuana--enough for one pot cigarette--to a paid police informant.
The tragic case illuminates the darker side of an aggressive Clinton administration deportation campaign that accelerated as part of an immigration overhaul passed by Congress in 1996.
Largely untold is the human legacy of shattered loved ones, including U.S. citizens, left behind. Gerardo Jr., his brothers and his sisters were all born in the United States, as was his mother. Some families of deportees, community workers say, have lost their principal breadwinners and been pushed onto the welfare rolls.
With his father's forced departure, relatives say, Gerardo began skipping classes, shutting himself in his room and acting moody. Making matters worse, the deportation coincided with a painful breakup with his girlfriend, the mother of his baby boy.
"He became a different person," says his mother, Maria Sanchez Mosquera, haggard from the double loss. "I think he believed my husband walked out on us. . . . That damn little bag of marijuana. It turned everything around. It cost my husband his papers. It cost my son his life."
Now, she wonders how she can reconstruct a delicately balanced life devastated by the loss of her eldest son and her husband, whose $300-a-week salary as a forklift operator helped keep the family financially afloat. Money for funeral expenses came from charity carwashes and donations. Meantime, Sanchez worries that some of her late son's symptoms--moodiness, depression--may be emerging in her other children.
Two weeks ago, she was watching the 11 p.m. news at her family's apartment, relaxing after a long week at her job as a school bus driver. Gerardo emerged from his room--with its posters of Bob Marley and James Dean and his trophies for baseball, football and boxing--and said he was stepping out for a bit. She thought nothing of it.
His recent erratic behavior had frightened Sanchez, but she and others who knew him say they never suspected he would take his own life. "He seemed like a very polite, well-rounded and stable young man," recalled Joseph Petruzzi, a counselor at his high school, who had spoken with Gerardo about his recent surge of absenteeism.
But that evening, officials say, Gerardo joined a group of friends just outside his home, pulled out a gun, put it to his head and announced, "I'm going to kill myself." Then he pulled the trigger.
Watching television inside her home, his mother heard the distinctive pop, a not-unfamiliar but always terrifying sound in the precincts of Bell Gardens, a largely Latino working-class suburb southeast of Los Angeles.
"Oh my God!" Sanchez screeched as she dashed out the door, terrified that her son had been shot in a drive-by or other attack.
He lay on the concrete driveway by a chain-link fence, a pool of blood gathering. She cradled her mortally wounded boy in her arms, screaming at the fates and hoping all the time it wasn't so.
Gerardo never regained consciousness. He died two days later. "I don't know what could be worse than this," says Sanchez, tears welling in her eyes at her well-kept apartment. "My son was a good kid; he was a mama's boy. To lose him like this . . . I just can't bear it."
Especially singled out in the ongoing deportation crackdown are so-called criminal aliens, a broad category of offenders. Some are murderers, major drug traffickers and longtime illegal immigrants. But others are like Gerardo's father, who came to the United States in 1969 as a legal immigrant along with five siblings and his mother to join his father, a car dealer who had emigrated earlier.
"They sent me back to a country I don't even know," Mosquera, 38, said in a telephone interview from his mother's home in Cali, Colombia, a turbulent country that he hadn't visited since his departure as a child. His Spanish is rusty, infused with Mexican border slang. "I was raised in the U.S.," Mosquera said. "I'm a stranger here. I can't get a job. I don't even know how to look for a job. How the hell am I supposed to survive?"
Mosquera's sole felony conviction stems from the ill-fated sale of $10 worth of marijuana on a Cudahy street. In the kind of deal commonplace in the criminal justice system, he pleaded guilty in 1989 to sale and transportation of 0.6 grams of marijuana; he received a 90-day jail sentence, 3 years' probation and $150 in fines. The Immigration and Naturalization Service might never have found him, had he not been subsequently imprisoned for not reporting to his probation officer. Upon his release, Mosquera was turned over to the INS, setting in motion the chain of events that culminated in his deportation.
Today, a despairing Mosquera says he never imagined the far-reaching consequences of his guilty plea. Among his litany of regrets: He failed to apply for U.S. citizenship during his many years here, though he could have naturalized easily and averted the threat of deportation.
But recent legislative changes have drawn an ever-sharper distinction between the rights of citizens and those of noncitizen legal residents, contributing to an unprecedented rush of citizenship applications.
Under Congress' sweeping 1996 revisions of immigration laws, any sale of illicit drugs, regardless of amount, is an "aggravated felony" that subjects noncitizen offenders to deportation. Previous law allowed exceptions for those who could show countervailing factors, such as evidence of rehabilitation and strong U.S. family ties. Moreover, the new law is retroactive, so it doesn't matter how long ago the crime occurred. Finally, anyone expelled as an aggravated felon now faces a lifetime ban from returning to the United States. "We take this kind of thing very seriously and are really at a loss to do anything but prosecute such cases and initiate deportation proceedings," said Rosemary Melville, deputy district director for the INS in Los Angeles, who declined to comment on the elder Mosquera's case.
An immigration judge ordered Mosquera deported as an aggravated felon in October 1996. Mosquera's appeal, made without the aid of an attorney--he said he couldn't afford one--was rejected the next August. Unlike many facing deportation today, Mosquera was able to post bail and remain free while his case proceeded.
An aggressive INS task force tracked Mosquera down last November, a few days before Thanksgiving. The agents arrived at the family apartment just before dawn, as they usually do, hoping to find their target at home. But both Mosquera and his wife had already left for their jobs. The officers herded Gerardo Jr. and the other sleepy children into the living room as they poked around, according the family.
"They asked if we were hiding my father under the bed," recalled 14-year-old Fernando Mosquera.
The INS decided the elder Mosquera could stay through Thanksgiving, but not for Christmas. He reported to the INS as ordered Dec. 3 for his formal deportation.
Mosquera is today a man tormented. He is benumbed that so horrific a fate could have been visited upon his family.
"I cannot accept my son's death right now," he said, his voice trailing off to tears over the telephone line. "I'm 4,000 miles away. How am I supposed to act and think? . . . I cannot sleep. I've lost 45 pounds. My life is ruined." Authorities say he has no one but himself to blame. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota denied him permission to return temporarily for his son's funeral today.
"I have to bury my son on Saturday," Mosquera pleaded last week. "I need to be next to my boy, somehow. I need to be with my family. This is the worst point in my life, and all I'm asking is, 'Please let me be there.' "