February 2, 2007 Volume 108 Number 3

Carpenter organizer gets reprieve before deportation

José Cobián, better known to local Carpenters as union organizer José Luis Mendoza, won temporary freedom Jan. 23 when Federal Judge Anna Brown declined to impose house arrest in the weeks before his Feb. 13 immigration hearing.

As reported in the Nov. 17 issue of the Northwest Labor Press, staff at the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters were taken by surprise last August when “Luis” was arrested and it came to light that their co-worker of five years had entered and worked in the United States illegally. Cobián, 36, left his native Colima, Mexico in 1989 to take under-the-table construction jobs in the Portland area. He taught himself to speak fluent English, and in 1996 was able to obtain false documents, which he used as the foundation to build a life resembling that of a citizen. He joined the union, became an organizer, married, had two children, and bought a home in Molalla. All that unraveled last year when federal agents showed up at his house.

Cobián pled guilty in September to passport fraud and was released on bail pending sentencing. Because he was legally unable to work, his union co-workers stepped forward with donations to support him and his family. His wife Maria de Rosario Lucio, who was visiting from Mexico on a temporary visa when they met, had been able to remain in the United States because of his supposed citizenship status; now that is due to be cancelled as well.

Leading up to his sentencing, Cobián’s supporters in the union appealed to Judge Brown for leniency, with letters and a DVD of videotaped testimonials.

“I have found him to be a dedicated, loyal and hardworking advocate for the working class … [who] stood up against the exploitation of workers in a very public way,” wrote Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters President Bruce Dennis. “While he may have violated some of the laws of this country, I feel he has embraced the democratic spirit of America.”

Cobián could have been sentenced to a prison term of six months to two years for the passport violation. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kemp Strickland, saying Cobián was not considered a flight risk and had cooperated at every point in the government’s investigation, recommended the lowest sentence within the federal guidelines — house arrest. Judge Brown went further, questioning what useful purpose house arrest would serve if Cobián is due to be deported anyway. She sentenced Cobián to three years probation instead.

It was an emotional moment for Cobián and two dozen supporters from the Carpenters who filled the courtroom. Brown said she’d watched the DVD, and told Cobián he was fortunate to have so many people standing by him.

The judge asked Cobián if he had anything to say.

“I did something wrong,” Cobián said, “and I’m deeply sorry for that, especially because it hurt so many people, including my family and co-workers. It’s something I want to teach my kids: If you lie, you’ve got to accept the consequences.”

For Cobián, the consequences will almost certainly be a return to Mexico and ban from ever coming back to the United States. Cobián and his union supporters hope he will be allowed to depart voluntarily with his family rather than be deported under custody. Eight-year-old Alexis Mendoza and her four-year-old brother Dante are U.S. citizens by birthright, and have never been to Mexico. Cobián is trying to sell his home, and hopes to use the proceeds to repay his co-workers for their support.

Unlike the federal civil case against him, Cobián’s Feb. 13 immigration hearing won’t be open to the public.

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