American Nightmare

Ernesto Mejia has a good job, a loving wife, and a clean record. So why has he been locked up in Krome for more a year?

Ernesto Mejia sits in a cramped visitation room at the Krome Service Processing Center, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of a detainee. After almost a year in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the 33-year-old is now a more subdued version of the outgoing, energetic young man family members describe. Still, his handshake is firm and he occasionally manages to muster a smile as he recites a tale of youthful mistakes, incompetent lawyers, and last-minute rescues. What distinguishes Mejia's story from that of most prisoners in Krome is this: His narrative could end up being part of a landmark immigration case.

The Honduran native is desperately fighting to avoid deportation to a country he left nearly twenty years ago and in which he has no immediate family. His case is currently before the federal appeals court in Atlanta, which is poised to make a decision about Mejia's fate that could help define how much power the INS can exercise over those it wants to expel. At issue is the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress in 1996 that limits judicial review of immigration authorities' decisions .

Mejia first arrived in Miami in 1980 at the age of fourteen; he joined his mother, who had come here to work as a housekeeper when her son was only nine months old. He entered the country legally as a tourist; shortly thereafter he received student immigration status, good until August 1990, and enrolled at Palmetto High School.

On April 14, 1986, police stopped a car in which Mejia, a Miami-Dade Community College student, and another youth were passengers. The police found nearly a kilo of cocaine in the vehicle. Mejia later denied he had anything to do with the drugs.

As this was his first offense, prosecutors offered him a deal: If he pleaded no contest to cocaine trafficking, a felony, he would serve two months in jail, a month in a halfway house, and then two years of probation -- a sentence reserved for youth offenders. After that his record could be sealed, essentially giving him a fresh start. Mejia asked his defense attorney, the prosecutor, and the judge whether a no-contest plea would affect his immigration status. All three insisted it would not.

They were wrong.
After completing his probation without incident, Mejia enrolled at Florida International University. In March 1990, however, the INS caught up with him in the form of a letter that accused him of having entered the United States illegally and of being a convicted felon. The INS temporarily detained him, then released him on bail pending a deportation hearing.

Mejia tried to extend his student immigration status but was rejected because of the pending deportation proceedings. He was left with a stark choice: Stay in Miami awaiting his deportation hearing (though after August he would be here without a valid visa), or voluntarily leave the country (effectively accepting deportation) and try, however unlikely, to obtain a new visa to return. He chose to stay. The INS seized on this and in December 1990 sent Mejia another letter, this one stating that the agency was now seeking his deportation.

In a series of immigration hearings, Mejia's lawyers argued that he had overstayed his visa in order to defend himself. Furthermore they insisted that his original no-contest plea and youth-offender sentence did not count as a conviction. An immigration judge disagreed. It was indeed a conviction under federal immigration law. Mejia's attorney appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia. In 1994 that appeal was denied, with the result that Mejia could be deported at any moment.

Over the next two years Mejia hired several different lawyers in his efforts to escape deportation. At the same time, he was finding success selling photocopy machines internationally. He also became engaged to his steady girlfriend, a U.S. citizen named Maria de los Angeles Salcines. The couple, known among friends and family as Nieto and Angie, were married on April 19, 1995.

Just three days before the wedding, and without Mejia's knowledge, the INS issued what is commonly known as a "bag and baggage" order, summoning him to appear for deportation to Honduras on May 12. When he finally received the notice, Mejia ignored it. Today he says that he didn't think he was required to appear because his lawyers were still appealing his case.

At International Document Solutions, where Mejia worked, he won honors as the number-two salesman for 1996. A year later he broke the four-million-dollar mark in sales. (Much of his work involved setting up photocopy machine franchises throughout Latin America.) With his wife working at a photo studio, the couple felt secure enough to begin searching for a home to buy.

Then in early 1997 Mejia learned the INS might be looking for him. His wife urged him to find a new attorney, and the two ended up at the office of Oscar Levin, an immigration specialist with the Miami firm Greenberg Traurig.

Levin enlisted colleague Elliot Scherker and together they filed a motion in state court seeking to set aside Mejia's original conviction, arguing that he had erroneously been told his no-contest plea would not affect his immigration status. On August 1, 1997, a judge granted the motion and Mejia's conviction was overturned.

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