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Immigrant veterinarian ruined by paperwork mistake

One day last fall, Dr. Salvador Galindo walked into immigration offices in Tampa expecting that in an hour or so, he would leave with a green card.

It would be one more milestone in a life filled with accomplishments. He had lifted himself out of poverty in rural Mexico to become a veterinarian, featured on Tampa's nightly news for saving a dog's leg and admitted to one of the best surgical residency programs in the country.

At his side was his new American wife, a woman he considered his soulmate and best friend. His attorney came along, assuring him the interview was routine.

But within hours, Galindo would be led away in shackles, his stunned wife weeping in disbelief and his attorney scrambling to help. Despite entering the country legally and maintaining visas for more than 10 years, bureaucratic errors had plunged Galindo into a nightmarish detention system — one where he was presumed guilty until proven innocent.

It would cost Galindo, 38, his job, his marriage, his mental health. And when it was all over, he would be exonerated — but he still would have to return to his native Mexico.

"I'm a very confident person," Galindo said. "But they broke my confidence."

Galindo's first trip to the United States was in 1998. He flew to Chicago on a tourist visa to see his infant son, born there to an ex-girlfriend he had met while she was teaching in Mexico. Galindo wanted to stay close to the boy. He had earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine in Mexico, so he studied English and obtained a professional, or H1-B, visa to work as a veterinary technician outside Chicago.

He met another woman, fell in love and married in 2001. She applied for his green card, but their marriage didn't last long. They divorced the next year and the application died. Or so Galindo thought.

He spent the next three years at Purdue University under student and professional training visas. He moved to Tampa, obtained his Florida veterinary medicine license, and over the next several years worked under professional visas at local animal hospitals.

Life seemed full of possibilities. He loved his job. He married again in 2007. He and his wife lived in a nice suburban house in Pasco County. They jogged almost every morning on the Suncoast Parkway trail and trained for triathlons.

The day of his green card interview, Aug. 29, 2008, he sported a suit and nice dress shoes. His attorney had told Galindo and his wife that he would leave with his permanent residency. The process would be smooth.

And it was, until the immigration agent re-entered his office with two thick files and announced: "We have a problem."

• • •

There was a warrant out for Galindo's arrest. What's more, said the agent with Citizenship and Immigration Services, a judge in Chicago had issued a final deportation ruling.

Galindo couldn't believe it. All of his paperwork was in order — it always had been. As an agent escorted him to the lock-up in the back of the building, he figured it was a mistake, that his attorney would clear things up pretty quickly.

Jennifer Roeper with Fowler White Boggs thought so, too.

She asked an agent to help Galindo obtain bond until she could get a court hearing. The agent said his hands were tied. He handed her a letter sent from immigration to Galindo in 2007. It was a notice to appear immediately in immigration court.

"You remained in the United States beyond March 27, 2001, without authorization from the Immigration and Naturalization Service," the letter read.

Roeper was stunned. The agent was holding a file that proved that letter was wrong. The file contained copies of no fewer than five H1-B and other training and student visas granted to Galindo from 2001 to the present.

Immigration knew the Chicago address was out of date because someone had returned the letter to the agency with a note scrawled on the front: "Forward, no longer lives here since long time ago." Moreover, they had been sending him visas to addresses in Indiana and Florida for years.

Nevertheless, when Galindo failed to appear in court in Chicago, a judge ordered him deported.

Roeper immediately recognized part of the confusion: Agents had mistakenly issued Galindo a second Alien number for the most recent green card application with his second marriage. Still, that didn't explain why CIS agents in Chicago had sent that 2007 letter, or why the attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which brought Galindo's case to court, also failed to see the numerous legal visas in his file.

But the CIS agent, while sympathetic, said he couldn't ignore a judge's order.

An agent brought Galindo into the ICE side of the building, where he felt the temperature drop sharply. A guard told Galindo to take off his clothes, down to his pants and T-shirt. He sat barefoot and shivering in a cold cell on a concrete seat.

Galindo was allowed to talk briefly with his wife and his attorney through the glass of a meeting room.

"They are most likely going to take you to Miami," his wife said, crying. He thought he would be free by the end of the day.

Anger boiled in his chest as guards shackled his hands and feet, attaching them to a chain around his waist. They put him in another small, cold cell with about 15 men from Central America and the Caribbean. One man was screaming, banging his head against the wall. The rest barely spoke over the next six hours except to ask each other where they might be going.

"We're going down to hell," Galindo said, shivering.

• • •

The van arrived in the middle of the night. Galindo couldn't see much beyond the barbed wire, but he sensed they were in the Everglades.

The Krome Detention Center sits in western Miami-Dade County off a dirt road. Dogged by almost three decades of federal investigations into allegations of abuse and inhumane conditions, Krome underwent a makeover two years ago. A civil, not criminal, detention facility, it houses an array of immigrants — from felons awaiting deportation to political asylum seekers and undocumented workers.

Grouped with hardened criminals who routinely attacked each other, Galindo was afraid. He took showers while clothed, hurrying through the bathroom where men were dragged out beaten and bruised.

Galindo waited, unable to call Roeper without a calling card. He gorged on chocolate bars from vending machines. He slept on a hard cot, one of dozens that clogged every inch of crowded walking space.

Every day he waited for his name to be called. He heard it the Tuesday after Labor Day.

He told a guard he was so happy to be going home.

"Honey, you're going home to your country," she said. "You're being deported."

Desperate, Galindo grabbed a guard by the shirt and said he had to make a phone call. The guard said no — he was about to be transported to a special cell for the night and shipped to the airport in the morning.

Galindo spotted a detainee with a broom in a blue jumpsuit , meaning he had phone privileges. He slipped him Roeper's dog-eared business card. Call her and tell her I'm being deported, Galindo pleaded in Spanish.

"If I get out of this," Galindo said, "I'll help you any way I can." The inmate quickly slid the card in the palm of his latex glove.

The next morning in Tampa, Roeper's assistant took the call from an inmate named Juan. Roeper knew that if Galindo left the United States, he would lose jurisdiction and his case would be over. But the Chicago judge on his case was out of town at a training seminar.

Roeper called the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer in Washington, D.C. By luck, the chief judge got on the line. Roeper explained Galindo's emergency. The chief judge promised to reassign the case.

The clock read 10 a.m. The flight was due to leave at noon. Roeper called Chicago every few minutes. "Is it done yet?"

Midafternoon, she got her answer. Another judge ordered a temporary halt to deportation until the case could be reviewed. But by now, she thought it was too late.

The clerk faxed the order to her. Roeper faxed the paperwork to Krome. She called Galindo's deportation officer.

Luckily, Galindo had missed the first flight to Mexico. A guard had put him with Salvadorans, delaying his departure. He was put on the next flight.

"The plane is getting ready to take off," the agent told her.

"Stop talking to me and go!"

Galindo sat hunched aboard the passenger plane. His hands and ankles were shackled, attached to the floor with a chain. Engines revved up. While other deportees cracked jokes, Galindo burned with anger and helplessness.

He wondered what he would do in Mexico. He had no Mexican ID. He wasn't certified to work there. Maybe he could do research. As he formed a plan, he heard a guard shouting his name.

Moments later, Galindo sat in the backseat of an immigration agent's car as it drove down the tarmac. Outside the window, he watched the plane taxi down the runway and take off.

Galindo started to cry. He had been spared, but he wasn't free.

• • •

The next week, guards dragged Galindo and other detainees across the country to avoid Hurricane Ike. Instead, they landed in its path, shackled inside an old bus with no air conditioning and almost no food for more than 12 hours. At a county jail in Oklahoma, Galindo endured another humiliating search. Guards lost his wedding ring. But an inmate helped Galindo make his first call to Roeper. She told him she was trying to get his case reopened and moved to Orlando so she could get a bond hearing.

Back at Krome, he had enough cash to call Roeper at least once a week for updates. She connected him through to his wife. But his wife's confusion about why this was happening and financial strain of the case left them arguing during their brief calls.

Weeks passed as Galindo grew hardened, caring only about survival.

He grew sick with bronchitis. He asked to see a doctor; he got a Tylenol, a muscle relaxant and an antihistamine. He got into a fist fight and was thrown into solitary confinement. Normally meticulous about his appearance, his hair and beard now grew out in thick tufts. Inmates called him el Lobo, or the Wolf.

One morning with no warning, eight weeks after entering Krome, Galindo was brought to immigration court inside the facility. The judge sided with Galindo's attorneys and ordered him released on bond pending a hearing in Orlando.

Hours later, Galindo walked out of Krome, wearing the wrinkled, dirty suit and dress shoes he had donned eight weeks earlier for his green card hearing. He trekked 5 miles to the closest convenience store. He said a prayer as he slid his debit card into an ATM.

A $100-taxi ride later, he was at the airport, where he bought a plane ticket for Tampa, new shorts and sandals, a haircut, shave and massage. He called his wife, who, still distraught, said she didn't want to see him.

• • •

Back in Tampa, Galindo remembers things turned cold with his wife. Normally easygoing, his temper flared. He was defensive, tired of answering questions about the case, about finances, about himself.

At work he split time between a Tampa clinic and a surgical residency at a prestigious animal hospital outside Philadelphia.

But he suffered panic attacks. In the operating room, preparing for surgery on a dog, he crouched in a corner and wept.

"It was really sad," said Dr. Jana Norris, his residency adviser, about marked change in Galindo. "As an American, I'm embarrassed that this is the (immigration) system we have set up."

He had lost about 25 pounds. His normal jovial nature that made him popular with animals, owners and staff, turned into nervous silence. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the same thing that crime victims suffer.

In January, an immigration judge in Orlando threw out the old Chicago deportation case. But it was too late to help. His marriage was in tatters. Galindo and his wife divorced in June. And Galindo can't apply for another professional visa because the six-year clock has run out.

Galindo must return soon to Mexico because he no longer holds legal status here. The only thing holding him up is that Tampa immigration still has his passport. They insisted he come and get it, but he feared he would be detained again.

On Friday, after the Times called CIS, Roeper said she was contacted by the head of Tampa's CIS office, who told her he was "very troubled" by what happened in Galindo's case. He invited her to his office to pick up the passport, which she did.

The courtesy is small comfort to Galindo.

"Thousands of dollars later, I've done everything by the book, and I have nothing," Galindo says. "I have to start all over."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Molly Moorhead contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Immigrant veterinarian ruined by paperwork mistake 08/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:09pm]
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