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'Onion King' battles U.S. officials over residency application
SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Mexico - He's called the "Onion King."
Jesús Bustamante owns the company that farms 4,000 acres of dates, pomegranates, radishes and green onions here, just across the border from Yuma.
Bustamante grew up here in a poor family, attended college to become an engineer and has served as mayor of the city. He and his wife and children own several cars and live in a beautiful home that is taken care of by servants.
Bustamante says he's just an honest farmer who has had good luck in business.
But members of the U.S. government have a different view. Back in 2002, when Bustamante applied for permanent resident status in the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents said they had reason to believe he was a drug trafficker.
That suspicion was the beginning of a nearly six-year legal battle that Bustamante has waged against members of the American government, from the officials who handled his residency application all the way up to the U.S. attorney general.
Bustamante and his lawyers argue in court documents that his visa application was denied and his border-crossing privileges were revoked because he refused to cooperate with the U.S. government in a drug investigation.
The problem, Bustamante said, is that he doesn't know anything about drug smuggling, and he couldn't help if he wanted to.
When Bustamante refused to cooperate, Drug Enforcement Administration officials denied his visa application and revoked his privilege to cross the border, "which he had possessed for many years without incident," according to the legal complaint.
He was unable to visit his wife or children, who are American citizens, in Yuma, where they lived, so his family moved to San Luis Rio Colorado near the U.S.-Mexico border to be together. His children still attend school on the American side of the border.
"They have to get up at 5 a.m., and they return at 5 p.m.," Bustamante said in an interview in the living room of his San Luis Rio Colorado home.
Bustamante's wife said her husband's legal battles have been particularly difficult on their 8-year-old and 12-year-old children.
"There are Christmas programs, there are First Communions, there are family events," Lupita Bustamante said. "Their father can't go, and they say, 'Why Mom? When is Dad going to get his papers?'"
Bustamante denies being involved in the drug trade in any way. The DEA claims to have evidence to the contrary; however, the agency has yet to produce that evidence either to Bustamante or to a court.
Bustamante said his predicament uncovers a truth about Mexican society. He believes that any evidence the U.S. government might have comes from rumors around town. Those rumors, he said, are the result of how many people in Mexico view success - with skepticism.
The Bustamantes hired James Metcalf, a Yuma lawyer, to handle their case. They say they're not asking the American government to change how it handles these kinds of applications - although they do feel that American immigration policy is in need of serious reform. They said they just want a fair hearing.
Lupita Bustamante said Metcalf was surprised they wanted to pursue the case because most people don't fight the U.S. government's decisions on residency applications.
She and her husband know they have an unusual case and that they are taking an unusual step in fighting it. But they say they want things set straight, if not for themselves, then for others who might face a similar situation.
"Eventually, I hope this'll get straightened out. I really hope [someone] will look at it and at least make somebody do something," Lupita Bustamante said.
"What they did was an indecency," her husband said. "They're injustices that these people are committing, thinking they have power under the law."
Their complaint was dismissed in Phoenix federal court after Cynthia Parsons, the assistant U.S. attorney in the Phoenix district who is representing the government in the case, filed a motion to dismiss, citing, among other things, the court's lack of jurisdiction.
The couple wasted no time in appealing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Metcalf brought a team of experienced California lawyers on board to help in the litigation.
The Ninth Circuit is currently considering granting Bustamante a hearing, and the couple expects a decision in the next few months. If they are turned down, the Bustamantes say they won't quit.
"Where does it go from here? The Supreme Court of Justice?" Lupita Bustamante said. "I guess that's what we'll have to do."
He will fight, Bustamante said, "All my life if I have to."
Bustamante applied for permanent resident status at the U.S. consular office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 2002.
But rather than receiving a decision on the application, court documents filed by Metcalf allege that Eric Cruz, an officer of the U.S. consulate, informed the Bustamantes in a meeting that the government had reason to believe that Bustamante was involved in the drug trade.
The complaint argues that Cruz refused to share any evidence to back up that claim.
Lupita said Cruz called the DEA while the Bustamantes were in the office.
"I have a big fish for you. I'm talking mega bucks," she said Cruz told the person on the phone. "And when he said that I looked him and I said, 'Why are you saying that?'"
She also claims Cruz told them he believed their 16-year marriage had been "fixed" with the purpose of gaining citizenship for Bustamante.
Lupita Bustamante said she was shocked that her husband's attempt to gain permanent resident status fell apart so quickly.
"When you don't have anything to hide, you can't imagine this happening to you," she said. "I would have never imagined this could happen to us. Never."
After the meeting with Cruz in which the government's suspicions were revealed, Bustamante said he was contacted by agents of the DEA, who presented him with an ultimatum.
"We know who you are in San Luis. You can help us there," Bustamante said the agents told him. "Tell us the names of all the people involved in the cartel you work for, beginning with your contact in Colombia, in Mexico and in the U.S."
"I haven't had any contact with anyone or any organization," he said he told them. . "I know who the drug traffickers are because I've read about them in the paper, but I've never been in contact with them."
Asked more directly about any connection to Colombia, Bustamante replied, "I've never been there. I've never done business with anyone there. My life has been built here 100 percent. I'm a very well-known person here.
"Why would I give the name of somebody in Colombia I don't even know?" he asked. "I'd be lying if I said, 'Yes, yes, I know him. I was doing business with him somewhere.' It's not true."
Bustamante said he told the agents, "I don't know how I can help you."
Metcalf, the couple's lawyer, said he's never heard of anyone being offered a deal like the one Bustamante alleges that the DEA agents tried to make.
"Really the heart of our case is that a decision was not legally made in this case," he said.
Sandy Raynor, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, said her office could not comment on Bustamante's claim that if he gave U.S. agents drug smuggling contacts, it would help him gain residency.
"Anything said by another agency we could not discuss," she said.
Officials at DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., failed to return calls asking for an explanation about the meeting with Bustamante.
In their complaint to the Phoenix federal court, the Bustamantes outlined their story about the offer and asked for a writ of mandamus, a legal term essentially meaning to compel someone to act.
The Bustamantes "have no other adequate remedy than an order compelling the Defendants (the government officials) to perform their official duties," the complaint argues.
The government's response to the complaint refutes, without elaboration, Bustamante's story about the deal. In response to the three sections of the complaint dealing with the offer, the government's statement reads only, "Deny. Deny. Deny."
Raynor said the government's case was clearly laid out in briefs submitted to the appellate court. "The case is under review by the Ninth Circuit. We're just awaiting their decision," she said.
She declined to expand on the government's claims in the briefs. She said U.S. Department of Justice policy bars her office from discussing information not in the public record in an ongoing case.
The government also argued in its papers that the Phoenix court lacked proper jurisdiction to hear the case at all. It was on that basis that the case was dismissed without a hearing.
Lupita Bustamante said that now that the case is in the Ninth Circuit, the government still has not presented any evidence of her husband's involvement in the drug trade.
"They have nothing. We know they have nothing," she said.
She also said that the government's lawyers have urged the Ninth Circuit not to hear the case because it might set a dangerous precedent that could require future visa applications to be reconsidered if the people filing the applications feel they have been treated unfairly.
It could be several more months before the Ninth Circuit decides if the case will be heard and a long time after that before the case is decided, if it is appealed.
In the meantime, Bustamante continues to run his business as usual. On a trip in his Lincoln Navigator to some of his onion fields, he stops for a few moments to chat with employees. He says he has thousands of employees, especially during the harvest season.
He shows off a stable of portable bathrooms, sinks for washing, and stovetops for cooking food, all set up for the workers. He points out the buildings where the fruits and vegetables are cleaned and packed and where the trucks that carry them to American markets are loaded.
He is upbeat, even when talking about the United States. He is a victim, he said, not of a broken system or a bad country, but of one prejudiced person.
"I think I'm the victim of the bad moment of one official that had a personal issue with me," he said. "I just had bad luck."
His wife also holds onto her faith in American justice. She doesn't want to explain to her children what has happened because she doesn't want them to have a bad impression of the United States.
"I was brought up and educated in the states," she said, and her children still go to school here. The family's oldest daughter recently finished dental school in the United States and will begin practicing soon.
At the least, Bustamante wants to be able to enter the United States to visit her and to attend events at his other children's school.
"I'm interested in getting a document that would allow me to cross with my family," he said. "I'm still interested."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of "Divided Families," an in-depth reporting project by advanced students in Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, supported by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.