A rare hot sun beat down on Tacoma in late August 2011, but Oscar Campos Estrada spent all of his time indoors.
By then, Oscar had worn the gray uniform of a Pierce County Jail inmate for nearly four months. But the jail term was the least of his worries.
Two decades after he illegally slipped over the U.S. border from Mexico, Oscar’s life as an illegal immigrant finally had caught up to him. A few months earlier, a Tacoma police officer had stopped Oscar on his drive to work for a cracked windshield. The cop quickly discovered Oscar was driving with a suspended license – an offense he’d been busted for several times before. Oscar was arrested and booked.
Pierce County Jail officials later contacted federal immigration agents, who interviewed Oscar by phone. The agents told Oscar they’d be coming for him.
Nearing the end of his jail term, Oscar tried to prepare himself mentally for a transfer to the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats – a transfer into the unknown.
“I don’t know what will happen to me,” he said.
Oscar put his odds of being deported at 50-50. With idle time in a jail cell, he’d thought long and hard about his situation.
“I’m illegal, but I’m allowed to pay taxes and pay child support,” he said. “I’ve been here more than half my life. My children were born and raised here. I’ve tried three times to get a green card, but every time something happened to stop it. I’m Mexican, but I feel like an American. I’ve worked hard to support my family. I love this country and I want to stay, so I’m going to fight it.”
What Oscar didn’t know then was that about a year earlier, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs had sent him a letter. It sought to inform him that he was now eligible to apply for a green card under the petition filed for him by his father in 1992.
After 18 years, Oscar’s long wait for green-card eligibility was over. But he wouldn’t have been able to obtain legal permanent resident status. His marriage in 1998 had disqualified him under the eligibility category for which he’d been petitioned and approved.
Nearly two decades later, Oscar instead waited in jail — unaware of the letter he would later say he never received — facing a pending deportation reckoning that easily could cut against him.
“I’m worried about the impact it would have on my kids emotionally,” he said. “If they send me back to Mexico, I’m not coming back. If I try and get caught, you’re talking five years in federal prison. I’m not taking that chance. So if I’m gone, how will my family survive? What happens to them?”
Oscar’s family already had suffered. During his incarceration, Oscar’s $900 per month child support payments to his estranged wife, Maria-Guadalupe, had stopped.
Ever since, she had scraped by to support Oscar’s 17-year-old son, Oscar Junior, and 13-year-old daughter, Magali.
Meantime, Oscar’s girlfriend, Maria, and the couple’s two-year-old son, Jasiel, also lost most financial means. Maria still worked as a house cleaner, but she struggled to cover rent.
“I am afraid they will lose the apartment,” Oscar said. “She’s wondering if she should start selling things.”
Oscar also worried that, should he be released, he wouldn’t have a job to go back to. He’d been making good money – $14 an hour – at a cabinet-making shop in Lakewood.
“It’s not easy to find a job like that,” Oscar said.