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Outcast in Mexico, outlaw in Utah

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fernandez-Vargas, 53, spent a year in the Utah County Jail while his lawyer argued his case, which the Supreme Court may decide to hear. On Sept. 9, 2004, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put him on a plane to Mexico. He walked across the Paso Del Norte bridge to the rough border town of Ciudad Juarez, passing fellow Mexicans headed the other direction. He had $97.34 in jail earnings and a plastic bag with personal papers and arthritis medication.

His first few weeks were spent milling around the Rio Grande, watching the Border Patrol nab people sneaking across the line.

Honey, I am very sad and inconsolable to clearly discover what I am doing here. My life is another place. I love you with all of my life. Me without you, I do not want to live. — Bert Fernandez letter

Rita Fernandez was born in Ogden and has spent most of her life on its industrial west side. She lives in a tiny two-bedroom home on dusty Kershaw Street. Four vehicles are parked in the gravel outside the house, none in running condition. A weathered blue tarp covers a late-model camp trailer the family bought shortly before Fernandez-Vargas was arrested.

Other than a borrowed big-screen TV, there is no living room furniture. A treasured collection of blue glass vases, teapots and wine bottles fill a wall shelf. Except for appliances, the kitchen, too, is empty.

Fernandez, 46, pulls out a stack of brown envelopes.

"This is our little immigration pile," she said, spreading legal documents, jailhouse letters and prepaid phone cards across the freshly vacuumed carpet.

The tears and the story start flowing without prompting.

"It's not easy. It's hard. We don't know anything about immigration. My husband has never lied to me. He always told me the truth. He's never been arrested for anything but being illegal. It was a blow to both of us."

And to Anthony, now 16, who more than ever needs his father. Fernandez-Vargas worries he will fall in with the wrong crowd at school and might turn to drugs.

"You don't know how much I miss my Anthony," he said, surprised to learn his son is now taller than him. "How is he going to turn out? That's what I got in my head is my son. Nothing else."

You know I don't understand imigration (sic) and guess maybe someday I will. But I don't get mad about what happened to us because I know my dad and I am very proud of him. — Letter from Anthony Fernandez to an immigration attorney

Fernandez-Vargas really didn't have much of a father or a mother, for that matter. The sixth of seven children, his parents handed him off to his grandparents shortly after birth. When they died, he returned to his parents. He didn't attend a day of school. He ran the streets of Cuauhtemoc.

His father used to beat him for no reason, including hitting him in the head with a hammer and whipping him with a rope. The welts left him wishing he were dead.

He'd had enough as a teenager and crossed the border for the first time to escape.

Due to some stupid mistakes, Fernandez-Vargas has a somewhat checkered past. He has been deported at least three times. But other than immigration violations he has no criminal record, according to his FBI rap sheet. A computer search of Utah state courts showed three traffic citations, the last one in 1994.

In July 1970, the former INS apprehended him near Nogales, Ariz., driving 13 undocumented immigrants to Boise. He didn't drive them across the border, but he had climbed a border fence to pick up an employer's van at a pre-arranged spot. He then drove it to a hospital where he picked up the others. His employer paid him $100, according to an INS report.

The government deported him in October of that year but did not charge him with a crime related to transporting illegal aliens.

In the early 1970s, he entered into a marriage of convenience with a 40ish woman in Wyoming, believing it would be a path to permanent residency. The former INS denied his visa application because he indicated he had never been incarcerated when, in fact, he had spent 90 days in an Arizona jail for being in the country illegally. The woman later died.

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