November 17, 2006 Volume 107 Number 22

Carpenters organizer faces prison, deportation

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

In a case that has brought immigration controversy to the heart of a local union, a Portland-area labor organizer is facing prison and deportation, stemming from the fact that he was in the United States illegally.

José Alfredo Cobián, 36, known to local union members as Jose Luis Mendoza, or simply Luis, spent the last five years working for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

As an organizer, Cobián visited non-union construction sites to tout the benefits of joining the union — and fight for the rights of non-union workers when their employers broke labor and safety laws or failed to pay wages.

Many of the workers on whose behalf he advocated were illegal immigrants.

“He was fighting for people in the same situation as him, and we didn’t realize it,” said Pete Savage, regional manager of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “He was taking a great risk.”

Cobián says his journey began at the age of 19, when he left his native Colima, Mexico, and made his way to the Portland area. He found under-the-table work doing carpentry for construction contractors, putting up new houses in suburban developments. Once, he returned from lunch to find that most of his co-workers had been arrested in an immigration raid.

But he was determined to stay. Every day he made a point to converse in English with someone, and every night he locked himself in his room for two hours reading English books, listening to English audiotapes, and watching English language television. Within a few years, he was a fluent English speaker.

Missing his family, he went home and came back again in 1994, crossing the border clandestinely.

Then in 1996, visiting family in Compton, California, he says he met some men on the street who offered to sell him a valid U.S. birth certificate and Social Security number for $800. It would mean fewer hardships finding work — employers would have the documentation they were seeking, and wouldn’t have to risk breaking the law to hire him.

The name on the birth certificate was Jose Luis Mendoza. Mendoza had been born a year after Cobián, in Willows, California, and had died at the age of four, without obtaining a Social Security number.

To make it work, Cobián would have to take on a new name, and forge a new identity. Now that he had papers, he could put his skills to work on the union side, and he joined Carpenters Local 2154 in March 1997.

Later that year, while taking computer classes at Clackamas Community College, he met Maria de Rosario Lucio, a native of Tampico, Mexico. Lucio was in the country legally, visiting relatives in the United States. They soon married, and had a daughter, Alexis. A son, Dante, followed four years later.

By then, Cobián had become an active union supporter. When a call came for Spanish-speaking organizers in 2001, he responded. The union had decided to try to unionize the mostly-immigrant nonunion workers flooding the construction industry. Cobián, fully bilingual and by all accounts gutsy and hard-working, was a natural fit.

He helped construction workers press pay claims, and held nonunion contractors to account. He was part of a drive to organize general contractor Swinerton of Oregon, and he helped campaign against Sideco in the residential sector and drywall contractors Ron Rust and Ramon Tapia. When the Carpenters Union took a stand in favor of federal immigration reform, Cobián became an activist, speaking at immigration rallies and even at a press conference outside the Portland immigration office.

Meanwhile Cobián had saved his pennies, and in 2002 was able to realize his lifelong goal of buying a home — a tidy ranch house in Molalla, a Portland suburb in Clackamas County.

Lucio stayed home to care for the kids. Alexis enrolled in Mulino Elementary School.

Despite a rough start, it seemed Cobián, as Mendoza, had achieved the American dream.

It was all about to unravel.

By late 2004, it had been 10 years since Cobián had seen his mother. He wanted to go home to visit his family in Colima — a medium-sized city 300 miles west of Mexico City. Would a birth certificate be enough to get him back into the United States legally? He wasn’t sure, and decided in January 2005 to use his false documents to apply for a U.S. passport. A passport was issued, and he flew to Colima, returning to the United States in December.

ICE, as the INS is now known, stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE won’t reveal how it gets information, but a government spokesperson told the NW Labor Press that Cobián’s false identity was exposed in a routine check of death records, which may have been prompted by his use of the passport on return from Mexico. If Luis Mendoza had died in 1975, the federal government wanted to know, how had he acquired such a solid work record 20 years later?

On July 27, 2006, Cobián got a house visit from two employees of the Department of State, the agency that handles passport violations. He knew why they were there, and invited them in, admitting what he’d done.

Then they left, and he waited. He wanted to know what to expect.

Cobián is mystified by the process. Why would the government let him know they knew, and then leave him be? Did they want him to run?

But the road is no place to raise a family, and if he ran, he’d lose all that he’d put into their home.

He decided to stay: The time had come to face the music.

“I always knew it was a risk,” Cobián said. “I made a mistake. I lied. I have to pay the price.”

He had lived in fear of the visit. Now, in a way, it was a relief to have it over with.

A month passed. He called the agents on the cell phone numbers they’d given him, to inquire about the status of his case.

On Sept. 8, the answer came: a telephone call from the authorities on his union cell phone. Would he be at home later? They wanted to refund his passport application fee, in person, he was told. Cobián knew the jig was up.

Lucio cried when she heard the news.

“I didn’t want my kids to see me arrested,” Cobián said. “So I sent them to a cousin’s house and waited at home alone.”

At 7 p.m., several vehicles pulled up, and eight agents from at least four agencies, in bullet-proof vests with badges, got out — ICE, Department of State, Social Security, and federal marshals.

They searched the house, and took Cobián to an office, interrogated him there for several hours, then placed him under arrest.

He was held at the downtown Portland Justice Center over the weekend, and indicted Sept. 11 on three felony charges: making a false statement on a passport application, using someone else’s birth certificate to obtain a Social Security number, and making false statements on a 2004 immigration petition to allow his wife to remain in the country.

Cobián spent the next two weeks at Multnomah County Inverness Jail.

His arrest hit co-workers hard.

“We were all shocked,” said Savage. “It was like, ‘Luis has been arrested. What do we do?’ ”

Co-workers in Portland and Seattle knew he had a family to support. They reached into their pockets. It was enough to pay the family’s bills, but not enough to pay for an attorney.

Cobián was assigned public defender Thomas J. Hester, who worked out a deal. He pled guilty to the passport charge, on the assurance the government would drop the other two charges, and was released Sept. 28 on bond to await his sentencing hearing, scheduled for Dec. 21.

It’s a three-month limbo: Cobián is not allowed to leave Oregon, but he’s also not allowed to work, and he has kids to feed.

Union co-workers began delivering boxes of food; individuals set up direct deposit donations that now total $450 a week.

“It’s pretty tough for me to even accept donations,” Cobián said, “coming from a country where men are supposed to be the sole provider. But in the end you have to show humility.”

As many as 12 million illegal immigrants are believed to be living in the United States, and illegal immigrants make up an estimated 5 percent of the U.S. workforce. When the debate over immigration reform broke out in Congress earlier this year, the Carpenters Union was among a number of unions that took a position supporting a “path to citizenship” and full civil rights for law-abiding immigrants who are already working here. That stand provoked some controversy within the labor movement, and was the subject of heated debates in local union halls. But Cobián’s case has shifted the views of some local Carpenters, including Savage.

“Right-wing radio talks about all of them coming here, mooching off government services, their kids going to school for free,” Savage says. “The reality is he’s paid into 15 years of Social Security he’ll never see. And we don’t even know if we’ll be legally able to give him his pension. He’s not about mooching. He’s a hard-working guy.”

Carpenters contacted for this story described “Luis” as a quiet pillar of strength, a courageous and dedicated organizer, a stand-up guy who never shirked any task, a union true-believer who could always be counted on, part of the fabric of his community. In short, a model citizen. Except he’s not a citizen.

“This is a great country,” Cobián said. “In my heart,” he adds, “I am an American.”

In the eyes of the law, on the other hand, Cobián is an illegal alien, subject to removal.

As of press time, Cobián’s sentencing hearing was set for Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. That date could change.

The passport charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. But since Cobián has a clean record and no prior deportations, federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison sentence of six to 12 months. Afterward, he faces an ICE administrative proceeding on deportation.

“I am going to be deported,” Cobián said. “I’m going to be going back to my country.”

Cobián admits to mixed emotions about the situation. On the one hand, he’s relieved at coming clean about the deception, using his real name again, and the prospect of living in the same city as his mother and three younger brothers and sisters. He’s resigned to deportation but dreads being separated from his family during the expected prison term. And what weighs heaviest, he says, is the likelihood of reduced life chances for his children — education and economic opportunity. Because they were born in the United States, Alexis and Dante are citizens, but with their father facing deportation and their mother’s legal residency consequently revoked, they’ll be starting over in Mexico.

Cobián is trying to sell his house. To prep it for sale, a crew of a dozen union workers from several trades came out to help him paint and landscape. But Cobián has been up front about his status, and no real estate agent has been willing to represent him so far.

Cobián said he’s always worked, and is already making plans for what to do upon return. He would like to apply his union organizing skills in his native land, he said, but he’s put off by the rampant corruption of the traditional Mexican unions and the long odds faced by more independent unions.

“Here you hold pickets,” Cobián said. “There you hold machetes.”

So instead, Cobián said he hopes to work as a translator, or apply his construction skills in one of Mexico’s growth industries — building retirement communities for American pensioners.

Cobián, or Mendoza, obtained a withdrawal card from his union, and doesn’t know whether or when he’ll be able to return to the Carpenters. But he says he’ll never forget his time in the union, or the help they gave when he needed it most.

“The union is, truly, a brotherhood,” Cobián said. “You don’t know it until you’re living it.”

Supporters have set up a fund to help “Luis Mendoza” and his family. Contributions can be made at any US Bank branch or mailed to U.S. Bank, 636 SE Grand Ave., Portland OR 97214. Checks should be made out to the Luis Mendoza Solidarity Fund.

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