Talk about killing an ant with an anvil. That is exactly what the United States District Court and customs agents did to Guatemalan immigrant Pedro Zapeta. He left them no other alternative. Zapeta was a greater economic threat than $100 a barrel oil or a sub prime mortgage. He knew how to retire on a minimum wage salary and had to be stopped before his secret spread to credit card crazed consumers.
Mr. Zapeta arrived on United States soil in 1996 with the same dream as generations of immigrants before him. Work hard, save money and provide a better life for his family. With little education and a lack of English language skills, Mr. Zapeta enjoyed the privilege of working for minimum wage as a dishwasher.
Among the piles of dirty dishes, silverware and soap bubbles, Mr. Zapeta saw an opportunity rather than despair. Nothing could be more difficult than leaving his family and traveling thousands of miles to a foreign country in search of work. Cleaning other people's dirty plates may not be a position many would envy but it would be his salvation.
After years of living a lifestyle that included riding a bicycle to work, playing soccer and going to church, Pedro achieved his goal. Self sacrifice and a frugal lifestyle had enabled him to save $63,000. He could now return to Guatemala and build a new house and life for his family.
That dream would soon become a nightmare. Unaware of Federal laws designed to stop drug money from leaving the country, Mr. Zapeta failed to complete the necessary forms declaring that he was traveling with more than $10,000 in cash.
Our court system decided to follow the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Even though Pedro Zapeta had more in common with Warren Buffett than Pablo Escobar, the District Court chose to keep $49,000 of Mr. Zapeta's money and graciously allowed him to keep $10,000.
News stories by CNN, The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel have kept Mr. Zapeta's sad story in the public eye. His pro bono attorneys, Marisol Zequeira and Robert Gershman are fighting for his money and the right to remain in the United States until the court makes a final decision. Gershman has even suggested that Mr. Zapeta pay a reasonable fine of approximately 10% of the total and have the remainder of the dishwashers hard earned money returned.
In fairness to his detractors, Mr. Zapeta was an undocumented immigrant who failed to file tax returns. I am not an accountant but I think it is safe to say that taxes owed on a minimum wage salary would be little or nothing and certainly less than $49,000.
Time is running out for Pedro Zapeta. An immigration judge ordered him to voluntarily leave the United States by the end of January.
Considering he managed to save $63,000 while earning minimum wage, I propose we should grant him citizenship and give him a show on CNBC to educate debt ridden Americans on how to save a few dollars.
Forget about Suze Orman, I want Pedro to tell me how he managed his money. Even better put Pedro in charge of balancing the Federal Budget. I'm sure Congress and other government officials would be willing to ride their bicycles to work like Zapeta did. They could even spin it to say they are doing their part to stop global warming. That said I am waiting for Al Gore to speak out in support of Zapeta. I know there has to be a documentary here somewhere and "An Inconvenient Truth Part II" might just help Pedro get the attention he deserves.
While we do not advocate breaking the law or failing to file income tax returns we do believe that the punishment should fit the crime. If only our judicial system pursued white collar crime and corporate fraud with the same energy they have invested in Mr. Zapeta. The stock and real estate markets have taken more money out of hard working Americans pockets than all the wages ever paid to undocumented minimum wage workers. Hopefully our court system will be compassionate enough to spare the ant from the anvil.
*If you would like to show support for Pedro Zapeta please visit the petition page at proudtoliveinamerica.com and add your name and information. We will forward the results to Congress, District Court Judge James Cohn and other interested parties.*
Philip Knab is president of http://www.proudtoliveinamerica.com a multi-lingual web site working to improve the lives of Latinos and all immigrants living in the United States. His background is in ESL English Education and the labor industry.