Psychologists today say that children as young as six months can make moral judgments between right and wrong. While life undoubtedly grows more complex as we age, we all weigh various factors in our struggle to lead a good life. Money, comfort, convenience, family, consequence and a host of other elements figure into every decision we make. Some choices are risky. Some have concrete consequences. Simply put, Milton Tepeyac—the veteran subject of Kevin Sullivan's front-page piece in yesterday's Washington Post—doesn't seem like a bad man. But he is a man who made a bad choice. He is now facing the consequences of his actions. Is that wrong? Mr. Sullivan's overly rosy portrait would lead you to think so.
Here are the facts: U.S. Immigration law says that noncitizens (including green-card holders) who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to stay in the country. Milton Tepeyac was a green-card-holding U.S. Marine. He served in Kuwait and Iraq. After his service he began a seafood business in Phoenix as a civilian. The business hit a rough patch, and he needed money. He was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal, which landed him four years in prison. When his prison term ended, he was deported to his native Mexico, as was consistent with his felony conviction and temporary status.
Is this sad for Tepeyac? Sure. Even more unfortunate perhaps because he was eligible for citizenship at age eighteen and never filled out the paperwork. (Note: If being a U.S. citizen is important to you, looking into your eligibility for said citizenship might be a good idea.)
That established, Sullivan makes Tepeyac's tale a real sob story when it's simply not: He now "scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city [Hermosillo], where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April. His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — more than a quarter of his weekly paycheck." Boo-hoo. Well, I'm sure that's no party, particularly when formerly, "he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW, and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool."
It's clear that our friend Milton was not one for looking into the law, but if he had, he probably could have compared these two scenarios and determined whether risking his entire way of life was worth $1k. It's unfortunate he didn't have that foresight. (One wonders, couldn't he have sold his BMW?) As an editor who distinctly does not have a pool or billiards room but manages to keep from brokering drug deals, my sympathy for Tepeyac is pretty limited. There are plenty of people who want to be U.S. citizens or even green-card holders who would never risk the privilege that life here affords, even when the going gets rough. Presumably because they understand that the "rough going" in America isn't what it is in Hermosillo, Mexico, or Mogadishu or San Pedro Sula or [insert nightmare here].
No doubt, Milton Tepeyac learned that the hard way.
Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, lamented, “It’s tragic in a case of somebody like [Tepeyac], who is not a hardened criminal." Yet truly, how many crimes does it take for someone to become a "hardened criminal"? Before earning his deportation, Tepeyac "was busted twice, for possession of cocaine and then drug paraphernalia, and placed on probation." The deal that got Tepeyac deported? For ninety-one pounds of marijuana with a street value of nearly $300,000. Not exactly chump change.
Many green-card holding recruits go on to serve honorably in the U.S. military and become citizens. As Sullivan enumerates, "Since 2009, about 9,800 military recruits have earned their citizenship during basic training in a program run by the military and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)." Kindly note that one of the qualifications to become a U.S. citizen is "good moral character." While Tepeyac might have been a nice guy to those who knew him in the United States, it's clear that he was not a man of outstanding morals. That's what Sullivan gets wrong in this excessively maudlin portrait, which focuses on the ramen Milton eats, his "baby blue" clothes, his family who rarely visits.
Sure, Milton served in the military, but he risked it all on lousy bet. Should have thought twice.
Image: Kenneth Allen. CC BY-SA 2.0.