Pedro worked for years at a company where he made a good living. He had enough money to raise children, pay a mortgage, buy ample food, and enjoy a few nice extras now and then. He was dedicated to his employer. His life in the United States was a hell of a lot better than desperation in his home country in Central America.
In the U.S., he had obtained a social security number and identity. He said he thought it was legit. He said he found out it wasn’t after the accident at his job. Pedro was seriously injured and co-worker was killed.
A dented head
He watched his friend get crushed by machinery, the man’s brains and skull bone bits on his boots. In the next instant the machinery knocked out Pedro with a blow to his head. It was a bad accident. It left a brain injury and permanent dent in his head. Pedro’s mental state was reduced to a third-grade level, according to doctors who evaluated him for his company’s insurance policy. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was judged 100 percent disabled.
Sometime during the accident investigation, it was revealed Pedro’s social security number was stolen. Pedro said he didn’t steal it — he said he had paid for it so he could work legally in America. Suddenly, there were massive legal issues. He was locked up. The judge told him he would have to leave the U.S. Pedro didn’t understand – he had a house, children, a common-law wife. He had been working in the U.S. for many years, and he was a good member of the community.
Before he was deported, his common-law wife paid him a visit in jail. There wasn’t much time, she said. You have to sign these documents so I can have power of attorney, she said. So the disability checks from the accident can be cashed, she said.
His former employer’s insurance company had agreed to pay $1,900 each month to Pedro for the rest of his life. Pedro said his wife promised to wire him half of the money every month after he was deported. It was money he could use to survive until he could get it all figured out and get back to his home, the home he paid a mortgage on – the home Habitat for Humanity helped the family fix up. The home with his children.
Pedro agreed to sign the documents. Even at the third-grade level, he sensed there would be no other way to get his disability settlement checks cashed from the accident. He had nightmares.
A busted heart
After deportation, Pedro was able to communicate with his two older children – but not the youngest one. Their mother prevented it, he said. Pedro had been in the U.S. so long that only one child was still a minor.
He always had to beg the woman to send him his disability money, he said.
A few hundred dollars from the monthly disability payment got automatically deducted for the ongoing mortgage. But Pedro said he received only a little of the remaining money. Certainly nowhere near half. After the first of every month, he said he had to call his former significant other and politely beg her to send him money via Western Union.
She gave him excuses, he said. She always needed more money for things at the house, for the car, for their youngest child. He said he was lucky to get anything at all wired to him. He tried not to anger her – he didn’t want her to stop sending him his own money. He would call and explain he needed money to eat. Instead of half, he said he got 15 to 20 percent a month from her most of the time. Sometimes it was less.
He said this routine had gone on some years before I met him while on my travels. I wanted to believe his story. So did my husband. Pedro’s slow, broken English did not conceal a speech impediment, but he seemed to speak from his heart. In some ways, he was like an innocent eight-year-old who would rather laugh and be merry more than anything else. He was a kind man with a hell of a story and a deformed skull. We decided to check out his story.
The company’s settlement with Pedro was out of court, but his deportation was federal record. Those records proved he was telling the truth about the accident. We found his story in the court records – and then some. The accident was much more gruesome than Pedro had told us – he had left out the gory details. The social security number theft also was included, with Pedro on the record as believing it was not stolen.
We looked up his property records online. He did have a house, once. For the first several years, the house was in the fake name he had used with the stolen social security number. Then, after his accident, we discovered Pedro’s former common-law wife had transferred ownership to herself using the power of attorney after his deportation. She had never told him. When we explained to him the house was no longer legally his, even though his settlement money was still paying the mortgage, he didn’t understand. ‘I want my house,’ he said over and over. ‘I want my house.’ I thought he might cry. Like an upset, confused, hurt and lonely eight-year-old.
Pedro had no way to return to the U.S legally – he had no recourse. My husband found out it was possible to obtain power of attorney for Pedro at a U.S. Embassy or consulate. We could then take that document to the state where Pedro’s former wife lived in the home and banked his checks. Using the new power of attorney, we could represent his interests. We could speak with the lawyer who settled the disability payment before Pedro’s deportation. We could insist Pedro’s name be restored to the property deed. We could try fix things so Pedro could get the proper share of what was his – so his life could be a bit easier for him in Central America.
We could redirect the monthly disability check to a new bank account with automatic debits for the mortgage and the former wife’s share. We could provide Pedro with ATM cards usable anywhere so he could access his own money.
Until we could get it all sorted out, we warned him the money might stop coming. Maybe she would get spiteful. Maybe she would fight our effort to enforce the 50/50 split in their money agreement. Maybe she would file for child support, which was never litigated nor needed as long as she controlled the settlement payouts. Maybe new legal fees would be incurred. We wanted him to know there was some risk.
He was afraid she would stop sending any money if he made her angry. He couldn’t hold many kinds of jobs with a third-grade intellect. He said he needed every dime that came down that wire. If he got $200 to $300 a month most of the time from her, it was better than nothing at all, he said.
We countered: would this woman continue to send him a small portion of his disability money “most months” for decades more? What if she ignored his pleading? What if she refused his international call each month? She could stop sending money for no reason other than her own greed. And, what if she decided to sell his house? He would be powerless – there wouldn’t be a damn thing he could do about it.
We brought a Spanish translator into our discussions so nothing could get lost in translation. We went over our offer again and again. Pedro would have to trust us – complete strangers. He would have to trust us to act in his best interest – to act as his former wife had not – to act as a power of attorney requires.
We were willing to go to the embassy with him to gain power of attorney; go back to the U.S and execute the changes; employ legal counsel if needed; keep in touch with him; always act on his direction; perhaps work with his former wife to someday extract equity from the house so Pedro could keep all of his disability money. Money he was supposed to get each month, for the rest of his life.
We urged him think about our offer, ask us questions, speak with the Spanish translator in private if needed, consult his attorney in the States or local counsel. We also explained he might not get this kind of chance again – honest Americans willing to get power of attorney at the embassy – and all the rest of what we offered to do. This could mean the difference between a lifetime of misery trying to scrape by, and a life of relative comfort with full belly.
Pedro decided to contact his settlement lawyer in the state where he once lived and worked. Pedro said the attorney promised to speak with his former common-law wife, and the attorney assured him the monthly wire transfers would be larger and less problematic.
So, in the end, Pedro declined our offer.
And lost hope
Pedro tried to reenter the U.S. some years after his first deportation. For his second offense, he served a short time in jail before his second deportation.
I recently found out Pedro was captured again – a third time. This time it happened somewhere around the U.S. border in Texas. I don’t know the full story, and I don’t know what drove him to illegally reenter again. Did his former wife stop sending money? Did he get it in his mind that he should be at his house? Did he set off to be with his kids? I probably won’t ever know.
The last I knew, Pedro was in a U.S. detention center, maybe facing more jail time before a third deportation. And I was powerless – there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Once in awhile, I hear Pedro’s voice echo in my memory. “I want my house – I want my house.” In my mind, I see him switch from sadness over his lost home, to sudden laughter at something silly. Something a child might find funny. His speech affected by his head injury. A part of his skull misshapen.
This series features people I have met on my travels who want to get to the U.S., or have been deported from the U.S. Names have been changed. They would only share their stories with me under the condition of anonymity. I do not support illegal activity in any way – I simply am sharing migrants’ stories.
Other stories in the migrant series: