Jose Pedro Verde-Rodriguez was one of 10 children in a family in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, who followed three brothers to California to earn some money in 1985. Twenty-seven years later, he's the subject of a court fight that could affect the rights of immigrant defendants in three states.
Though he crossed the border illegally, in 1990 Verde-Rodriguez got permanent approval to stay in the United States as a seasonal agricultural worker. He jeopardized that opportunity in the mid-1990s by piling up five drunken-driving convictions.
In 1998, Verde-Rodriguez was brought before an immigration judge in California, without a lawyer. In a minutes-long hearing, the judge said he had "way too many convictions for driving under the influence," which constituted "an aggravated felony" and thus made him deportable. "Yes, sir," Verde-Rodriguez said, and the judge promptly sent him back to Mexico.
The legal problems with that proceeding were many, according to Verde-Rodriguez's attorney, Adrian Roe. Drunk driving -- even five times -- isn't an aggravated felony, and the judge should not have portrayed it as such, Mr. Roe has argued in legal briefs before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which writes case law for Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
By failing to explain to Verde-Rodriguez his due process rights, the judge led him to believe that there "was no conceivable legal issue and therefore no reason to seek legal advice or take an appeal," Mr. Roe has argued, characterizing that as a "gross miscarriage of justice."
The real injustice from Verde-Rodriguez's perspective is that decision's role in wiping out the dozen years of progress he's made since.
Verde-Rodriguez crossed the border again, and ended up in Columbus, Ohio, doing roofing and siding work. In 2002 he met the woman he would marry, an insurance professional. He became the de facto father of Andria Verde's son, Alex.
Verde-Rodriguez worked installing siding for more than a decade, and a big job brought the couple to Pittsburgh. "I liked it there, and I saw there was more work in Pittsburgh than in Columbus," he said.
They settled in Turtle Creek, and later moved to West Mifflin. He went to Gateway Rehabilitation Center and got sober. The couple became very active in their church.
"He hadn't had contact with the law in a dozen years," except for one speeding ticket, said Ms. Verde.
In 2011, agents showed up at his job site and took him to prison.
Prosecutors eventually dropped an illegal re-entry charge in return for a guilty plea to the lesser charge of use of a false Social Security number. Because he had entered the country in violation of the 1998 order, Verde-Rodriguez was deported. Mr. Roe's appeal is aimed at undermining the rationale for that deportation, and ultimately reversing it.
Now the family lives primarily in Matamoros, Mexico, though Ms. Verde maintains an address in Brownsville, Texas, so that Alex can go to school there. Ms. Verde also works in Brownsville, entailing twice-daily crossings of the traffic-choked border.
Verde-Rodriguez, 44, has found work hard to come by.
"Sometimes I do work with some guys who do remodeling," he said. He is thinking of trying to go to computer school in hopes of landing more regular work.
The contrast from his busy, productive life in Pittsburgh is jarring, he said. "It's kind of like she is supporting me, so it's a drastic change."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.