STUART, Florida (Reuters) - For nine years Pedro Zapeta did nothing but work and save.
The illegal immigrant from Guatemala bought no baubles for girlfriends, never traded in his bicycle for a car, never drank a beer in a bar and ate only at the Florida restaurants where he worked as a dish washer for $5.50 to $7.50 (2.68-3.66 pounds) an hour.
Then two years ago, with $59,000 collected in a black sports bag that had become his bank and another $3,000 stuffed in his pocket, Zapeta decided he had enough to return to his poor Mayan mountain village and buy a piece of earth on which to raise a family and build a home.
That’s when disaster struck.
As the 39-year-old with stumbling Spanish and no English at all walked through a security checkpoint at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport on September 18, 2005, a one-way ticket to Guatemala City in one hand and black bag in the other, he was stopped.
The $59,000 in savings, wrapped in rubber bands and stuffed in envelopes, was confiscated because he had failed to fill in a form saying he was taking more than $10,000 out of the country. He was only allowed to keep the $3,000 in his pocket.
Zapeta, whose mother tongue is Quiche and who hails from the chilly highlands of Totonicapan in west central Guatemala, has spent two years fighting to get his money back, but he doesn’t have much time left. He has to leave the United States by January 24, 2008, under a voluntary deportation order.
“How is it possible that they want to take so much from me? It’s not possible, it’s not fair,” Zapeta told Reuters.
Zapeta’s Quixotic struggle against the U.S. government has been embraced by both sides of the passionate U.S. debate on illegal immigration.
Some believe he deserved to have everything confiscated because he entered the country illegally and never filed a tax return. Furthermore, the employers who hired him should be fined and jailed, critics write in blogs and opinion pieces.
Others feel outraged that a man personifying the American ideals of hard work and thrift at a time when many U.S. citizens are buried in debt should be so heavily penalized for what appears to have been an honest mistake.
“Anyone who can amass $62,000 in nine years should be forced to stay here and teach the rest of us how to do it,” Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez wrote recently.
Zapeta says he had no idea he needed to declare the money. It was after all the first time he had seen the inside of an airport — he entered the United States in June 1997 across the desert dividing Mexico from Texas.
U.S. prosecutors, who could not be reached for comment on the case, at first questioned whether the money was the fruit of drug-trafficking, rather than of honest labour, but they soon dropped those suspicions. Zapeta has payslips showing some of his employers deducted social security and public health insurance, or Medicare, contributions.
In a ruling early this year, United States District Judge James Cohn ruled that Zapeta could keep $10,000 — the amount he would have been allowed to carry with him — but had to forfeit $49,000 to the U.S. government.
Zapeta says that’s not acceptable and his lawyer, Robert Gershman of West Palm Beach, has lodged an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
“It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t reasonable, it wasn’t proportional,” said Gershman, who is not charging legal fees.
Gershman also received $10,000 in donations for Zapeta but says the tax authorities have told him they might want a piece of that, too. Zapeta is grateful for the donations. Nevertheless, he says he would prefer to have the money he actually earned.
“I don’t understand why they are pursuing justice with such determination when all I did was make a mistake,” Zapeta said.
“I need this money. I have no money in my country, I have nothing. Let them take the taxes (I owe) but don’t take everything.”
Marisol Zequeira, Zapeta’s immigration lawyer, said those who believed he had only managed to save so much money because he failed to pay income taxes were probably wrong. He most likely paid everything he owed for his income level through automatic deductions from his pay checks, she said.
“But he lived in a way that most of us would not even conceive of,” Zequeira said.
“He deprived himself of just about everything from medical attention to basic recreational things like movies. He doesn’t even own a car. This man worked all his life, for nine or 10 years all he did was work and go to church.”
Zequeira said she found it hard to believe that the authorities would pursue a U.S. citizen with equal fervour.
“If he had to pay taxes, he should have paid taxes, if he has to pay a fine because he made this mistake then he should pay the fine. But I think what’s egregious is that we’re taking away all his money and I don’t think we would do that to anybody who wasn’t an illegal immigrant,” she said.
“We wouldn’t feel that we had the right to do that.”