Penalty for drugs: deportation
Ernesto Schwartz was adopted at age 8, but his family never completed his steps to citizenship.
A Florida man who has grown up in an American family since he was 8 years old sits in a Bradenton jail cell awaiting deportation to a country he barely remembers.
Panama-born Ernesto Schwartz, 35, was adopted by an American citizen when he was a young boy. He could have become a citizen, but his parents never took the necessary steps. They mistakenly waited for years to fill out the paperwork, and after Schwartz turned 18, it was too late.
Then, two felony drug convictions and a change in immigration laws made Schwartz deportable. Authorities began proceedings to have Schwartz deported after he went to them to straighten out his situation.
Now he has to leave behind his family, his business, his house and the only home he has ever known. His deportation is imminent, but he wants to make sure parents who adopt foreign children don't make the same mistake and put their children at risk of deportation.
A local immigration attorney said people who have adopted foreign-born children should see Schwartz's case as a warning.
"He wants to let people know that you've got to watch what you're doing, and if you're not a legal citizen you can cause your family a lot of heartache," said Jim McBain, Schwartz's Bradenton attorney.
Schwartz is one of thousands of legal permanent residents who became deportable after a 1996 law turned all felonies, and some misdemeanors, into aggravated felonies. Even crimes that were committed before the law was enacted make people deportable.
Lawyers and immigration advocates have said the law goes too far and punishes people who aren't repeat criminals.
"This is a pervasive problem right now with our system," said Marshall Fitz, assistant director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Fitz said Schwartz is in a citizen "sandwich," with his father and young son being citizens.
Before being detained last year, Schwartz had a green card and lived legally in the United States for 27 years. Schwartz said he and his family thought that after he was adopted by his American stepfather that he would automatically become a citizen. But they never filed the proper citizenship paperwork.
If Schwartz had been a citizen, his crimes wouldn't be sending him to Panama, a Central American country he barely remembers. Prior to the 1996 laws, crimes like Schwartz's weren't immediately deportable.
Schwartz doesn't make excuses for his past cocaine habit. He said he was a middleman who got drugs for his buddies. And he refused to tell cops where he got the drugs, saying he wouldn't "rat out" his friends.
Schwartz said he knows he made mistakes. He did his probation, attended treatment programs and tried to move on with his life.
"I'm sorry about it, I'm ashamed of it, but it's my life and I can't change it," he said from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in downtown Bradenton. "And I did what I was supposed to do."
Schwartz can't fathom that he's leaving a country where he bought a home, made a business and coached a youth soccer team.
He'll leave behind his 5-year- old son, Zachary, with his dimples and light-brown curls.
Schwartz is scheduled to be deported by the end of the month. According to immigration law, Schwartz cannot return to the United States.