By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“But he’s always had bad luck,” she laments. “Always.”
Pedro Guzman was born on September 25, 1977, at L.A. County Medical Center in Lincoln Heights. He grew up at first in South-Central, then in Lancaster, where his mother says they moved in order to avoid gang violence. His father lived in Farmersville, near Fresno. He later died in a car accident, but for years the split family had a good, loving relationship. They liked Lancaster, especially Pedro. The wide-open spaces, the heat, the silence. “He liked it the way it is out here,” says Michael. “It’s quiet, nobody bugs you. There’s no cars, no noise; it’s peaceful.”
Every day that passes, I am losing hope that I will find him.(Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)
Pedro, known to his family as “Peter,” dropped out of Littlerock High School in Lancaster in the 11th grade, his brothers say. When it came time to take his written exam for his California driver’s license, Pedro failed seven times before passing. He only succeeded after memorizing as many practice-test questions and correct answers as he could in order to pass. “He worked on the only thing he honestly knows how to do, and that’s throwing cemento,” Michael says. “He knows everything about cemento. Anything you ask about throwing cemento for a pool, he knows all that.”
On the afternoon of March 31 of this year, Pedro Guzman appeared unexpectedly on the runway at Lancaster’s Fox Field Airport. According to court papers and interviews, Guzman ran up to a private Cessna Citation and yanked at a passenger door as it was preparing to take off. “This guy came from basically out of nowhere, and decided that through whatever mental means he had that he was going to meet an aircraft, and an aircraft was going to take him away,” says Steven Irving, the airport manager.
The Sheriff’s Department arrest report says that Guzman “made two more attempts to board the plane without attempting to pay for air fare.” Airport personnel stopped him, the pilot shut down his engines, and passengers on the private flight returned to the airport’s administration building to wait to reboard. As Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found Pedro sitting in a truck that he described as “not his,” on airport property. The report goes on: “He said he found the truck ‘behind some house’ with the keys in the ignition.” Guzman was arrested for tresspassing and felony auto theft, then booked on vandalism charges. Irving says they later reviewed security-camera footage and saw that Pedro drove in behind a fuel tanker authorized to enter the airport.
On April 19 a Superior Court judge sentenced Guzman to 120 days in county jail. On his medical screening form, under the question, “Does the suspect appear to be developmentally disabled/retarded?” the county jailer marked “No.”
It wouldn’t be his first time there. In 2000, Guzman was arrested and convicted on charges of drug possession with intent to sell. No other information about the incident has so far been filed in the federal court case. Juan Carlos tells me his younger brother spent close to a year in jail as his 2000 case was adjudicated, then Guzman served “six or seven months” in state prison before being released on probation.
Following his April sentencing this year, Maria Carbajal was able to visit Guzman once at Twin Towers, and not long after, Guzman’s family say they received word that Pedro would soon be released, his sentence downgraded to probation and house arrest.
Ordinarily, this would be when someone in his situation is allowed to go home. But in late 2005, the Sheriff’s Department entered into an agreement with ICE, now an agency in the Department of Homeland Security, that permits Sheriff’s officials to perform immigration screenings inside the jails. Getting released for probation comes with an added step for some. Inmates must now sit down with a Sheriff’s “custody assistant” for an interview to determine whether one is eligible to be released to ICE for deportation. The program, referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding, has been highly touted by law enforcement authorities as a way to both relieve overcrowding in the jails and to actively enforce immigration laws.
The process appears fraught with potential loopholes. For starters, there are few safeguards to verify what an inmate says in an immigration interview is true. Inmates’ names are run through an ICE database and a criminal record database, but it is unclear how or if the information is cross-referenced, says Mary Tiedeman, director of the ACLU’s Jails Project. Tiedeman has broad access to the county jails as part of a consent decree imposed on the Sheriff’s Department, but she says she is not aware of how inmates are chosen to undergo an immigration screening before being released. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s legal director, says the likely standard amounts to racial profiling.
“It’s a system that’s built on the stereotypes that most Latinos are presumptively illegally in the country,” Rosenbaum says. “That just mocks the notion of process. It’s just a deportation manufacturing machine.”
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, says that the agency regularly comes across inmates who lie about their status — saying they are legal U.S. residents or citizens, when they are not — but that it is “highly unusual” for an inmate to lie in reverse in an immigration interview, to claim illegal status when the opposite is true. Pedro Guzman did exactly that.
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