Mistake costs dishwasher $59,000
- Story Highlights
- Guatemala native Pedro Zapeta a dishwasher in the U.S. for 11 years
- The illegal immigrant tried to bring $59,000 in savings back to Guatemala
- U.S. customs seized cash when Zapeta failed to fill out form declaring money
- Zapeta, who tried to get the money back for two years, now faces deportation
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- For 11 years, Pedro Zapeta, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, lived his version of the American dream in Stuart, Florida: washing dishes and living frugally to bring money back to his home country.
Two years ago, Zapeta was ready to return to Guatemala, so he carried a duffel bag filled with $59,000 -- all the cash he had scrimped and saved over the years -- to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But when Zapeta tried to go through airport security, an officer spotted the money in the bag and called U.S. customs officials.
"They asked me how much money I had," Zapeta recalled, speaking to CNN in Spanish.
He told the customs officials $59,000. At that point, U.S. customs seized his money, setting off a two-year struggle for Zapeta to get it back.
Zapeta, who speaks no English, said he didn't know he was running afoul of U.S. law by failing to declare he was carrying more than $10,000 with him. Anyone entering or leaving the country with more than $10,000 has to fill out a one-page form declaring the money to U.S. customs.
Officials initially accused Zapeta of being a courier for the drug trade, but they dropped the allegation once he produced pay stubs from restaurants where he had worked. Zapeta earned $5.50 an hour at most of the places where he washed dishes. When he learned to do more, he got a 25-cent raise.
After customs officials seized the money, they turned Zapeta over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS released him but began deportation proceedings. For two years, Zapeta has had two attorneys working pro bono: one on his immigration case, the other trying to get his money back.
"They are treating me like a criminal when all I am is a working man," he said.
Zapeta's story became public last year on CNN and in The Palm Beach Post newspaper, prompting well-wishers to give him nearly $10,000 -- money that now sits in a trust.
Robert Gershman,one of Zapeta's attorneys, said federal prosecutors later offered his client a deal: He could take $10,000 of the original cash seized, plus $9,000 in donations as long as he didn't talk publicly and left the country immediately.
Zapeta said, "No." He wanted all his money. He'd earned it, he said.
Now, according to Gershman, the Internal Revenue Service wants access to the donated cash to cover taxes on the donations and on the money Zapeta made as a dishwasher. Zapeta admits he never paid taxes.
CNN contacted the U.S. Attorneys office in Miami, U.S. Customs and the IRS about Zapeta's case. They all declined to comment.
Marisol Zequeira, an immigration lawyer, said illegal immigrants such as Zapeta have few options when dealing with the U.S. government.
"When you are poor, uneducated and illegal, your avenues are cut," he said.
On Wednesday, Zapeta went to immigration court and got more bad news. The judge gave the dishwasher until the end of January to leave the country on his own. He's unlikely to see a penny of his money.
"I am desperate," Zapeta said. "I no longer feel good about this country."
Zapeta said his goal in coming to the United States was to make enough money to buy land in his mountain village and build a home for his mother and sisters. He sent no money back to Guatemala over the years, he said, and planned to bring it all home at once.
At Wednesday's hearing, Zapeta was given official status in the United States -- voluntary departure -- and a signed order from a judge. For the first time, he can work legally in the U.S.
By the end of January, Zapeta may be able to earn enough money to pay for a one-way ticket home so the U.S. government, which seized his $59,000, doesn't have to do so.
I mean come on! #1 He knew he was illegal already why in the world would you then attempt to board a commercial airline with 59,000 in Cash!? No matter who you are whether you are supposed to claim it or not is going to be questioned with that amount of cash on hand. It`s post 9/11 and Security measures have been brought to new lengths and he tried to pull a pretty lame stunt IMHO.
Hard worker? No doubt! Did he earn the 59,000? With every dirty dish and spoon he washed! Does he deserve to get it back? NO! IMHO if he was to get it back I believe that we can make a positive example out of 'Pedro' and What we should do is...If his money means that much to him he should then follow the proper procedures for the immigration process into America and all the Lawyer Fees and Other associated fees to coming over here should be deducted from his 59,000 and then the remainder can be given back to him if he chooses to send it back to his family then so be it. Being from a Hispanic and European background I feel like I am even more at liberty to be Harsh on 'Pedro the Dishwasher' We have a Great Country which I (even as a minority) am going to have an opportunity to serve. I am all for immigrants....Not illegal ones though...ESPECIALLY the ones who come here for the free ride and bank all that money away just to go live like kings when they go back, Why? Because we have people struggling here in our own country, I just don`t believe it to be fair in the least bit. I really think that a good example can be made of this guy and they can do it a positive way too....What do you think?