By Joe Beck
Martha Elena Gomez Torres and Carlos Alberto Morales-Luis spent more than decade trying to build decent lives for themselves and their three children in the United States, but those efforts ended Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg.
All that remains of their American dream is a Department of Homeland Security proceeding scheduled for June 3 where officials will make arrangements to deport them to Mexico, the place they left more than a decade ago.
The case sheds light on the life of one couple from Woodstock who entered the United States illegally and, by all accounts, managed for a while to gain a foothold in American society through hard, honest work, despite long odds.
Their case also illustrates some of the issues fueling debate in Congress over a bill that, if approved, would make landmark changes in immigration law.
U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski summed up the central paradox the case presented for him in weighing a sentence for the couple on immigration related offenses.
"He's been living here unlawfully, but living a lawful life," Urbanski said of Morales-Luis during a sentencing hearing.
But not quite lawful enough. Morales-Luis, who worked until recently as a forklift operator for a retail store chain, appeared in court in a jail uniform. He had been in custody since the couple's arrest on Oct. 25 after U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement placed a detainer on him.
Morales-Luis and Gomez Torres each pleaded guilty earlier this year to making a false statement in applying for a passport, a felony carrying a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Morales-Luis also pleaded guilty to impersonating a U.S. citizen, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Wright asked for a prison sentence of six to 12 months for Morales-Luis and the "low end" of the six to 12 month range for Gomez Torres.
Urbanski said the couple's willingness to accept responsibility for their offenses, cooperation with law enforcement, and virtually clean records - Morales-Luis had one prior conviction for driving under a suspended license - led him to impose lighter sentences.
Urbanski sentenced Gomez Torres to 26 days probation, the length of time between the sentencing hearing and the Homeland Security proceeding on June 3.
Urbanski sentenced Morales-Luis to the prison time he has already served, although paperwork problems were delaying his release from custody as of Thursday morning.
Gomez Torres wept through a short statement before her sentencing. She explained through a translator that she didn't understand the potential consequences when she falsely identified herself as U.S. citizen Alma Solaiba Perez in applying for a passport.
Now, she said, she was "very sorry" for her actions and ready to return to Mexico with her family.
"My children are my priority," she said. "I had a really, really hard childhood. I love them with all my soul. I just want to take care of them."
Court records spell details of the grim childhood Gomez Torres referred to in her statement and a harrowing journey across the U.S.-Mexican border during which she and her toddler child nearly died.
A sentencing memorandum filed by Assistant Federal Public Defender Andrea Harris gives the following account.
Gomez Torres grew up in Las Choapas, Mexico, in a household where the mother held a job to support the family. Her father was an alcoholic who beat his wife, Gomez Torres and her sister every day. One beating left Gomez Torres, then 4 years old, with bleeding knees. Her father continued the abuse by forcing her to kneel on a stool, tied her to the stool and left her in the residence where her mother later discovered the suffering child.
Gomez Torres was 15 when the female members of the household decided to move out after her father choked her mother during another beating.
Her wretched home life did not prevent Gomez Torres from obtaining a government scholarship that allowed her to complete high school. Within a few months, she met Morales-Luis, and they married in late 1996.
Their oldest child, Marijose, was born in January 2000, a year before Morales-Luis left for the United States. His mission was to find a job that would allow him to earn more to support his wife and daughter.
Morales-Luis managed to save enough money to pay a smuggler who was to help Gomez Torres and Marijose cross the border. From there, they would travel to Woodstock to be reunited with Morales-Luis.
Smugglers often prove to be treacherous partners for illegal immigrants trying to cross the barren Southwest desert where temperatures can fluctuate between searing daytime heat and numbing nighttime cold. The U.S. Border Patrol reported 463 migrant deaths in 2012, second only to the 492 registered in 2005.
Gomez Torres and Marijose, then 2, almost joined the list of those who died making the perilous journey in 2002.
They made it into the United States before a flat tire on the smuggler's truck stranded them and other migrant passengers in the middle of the desert.
The smuggler left with assurances that he would return with help, but never did so. The daytime heat made the formula that Gomez Torres prepared for her daughter too hot to drink. At night, the cold forced Gomez Torres to cover Marijose with her body for warmth. The girl came down with a high fever. Food and water ran out by morning.
Marijose's illness worsened until the group reached an Indian reservation where they were able to summon help.
Harris's sentencing memorandum describes Marijose as fully recovered and "now a thriving teenager doing well in school."
The couple has had two other children, a boy, 3, and another boy 8 months old, since they reunited in Woodstock in 2002.
The couple's defense attorneys said in court and in case documents that they obtained their passports to visit sick relatives in Mexico or tend to family matters after the death of a parent.
In making the case for incarceration, Wright argued that the offenses in the case harmed two people whose identities were stolen by Morales-Luis and Gomez Torres.
Gomez Torres used another person's Social Security number in a job she held in Front Royal, according to court documents. The documents also cite the fake identity as the cause of a bogus claim that was submitted to Medicare after a doctor's visit in 2011.
"With regard to the sentencing, this was not a victimless crime," Wright said.
Urbanski said he believed the impending deportation, prison time already served by Morales-Luis and felony convictions were enough punishment. He rejected the idea of a period of home confinement for Gomez Torres, citing unnecessary cost to the federal government.
Urbanski added that the felony convictions would prevent the couple from ever being eligible for U.S. citizenship under any changes currently proposed in immigration law. The immigration bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would allow some deportees to return to the United States legally, but the proposal is limited to those without serious criminal records.
"I cannot tell you enough that your time of working and staying in the United States is over," Urbanski said to Morales-Luis.
R. Darren Bostic, a Harrisonburg attorney representing Morales-Luis, said after the hearing that the couple and their children, two of whom are U.S. citizens, would likely be deported soon after the June 3 administrative hearing. Bostic said they will be flown on a government plane with other deportees and left at an airport in Mexico.
"They would just like to go home and see if they can get their lives started over in Mexico," Bostic said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org