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.
Now, it would be easier to explain to the customs officials the mistake if one spoke english. It would also enhance one's credibility to be a US citizen, or legal immigrant. Oops:
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.
DOH! There's the mistake. He was illegal on accident? It was just a mistake, see. CNN's hopped on that happy hispanic bandwagon, that all immigrants should be legal, and their manner of entry into this country should have no bearing on their rights.
Notice this guy was here 11 years, and never picked up the language? Funny, my French Canadian, Irish and German immigrant forbearers decided to learn the language when the got to this country, not just prennent l'argent et se sauvent , or sie nehmen das Geld und fliehen [take the money and run]. In fact, they joined the US Army, and fought in WW II, and when that was done, they worked and paid taxes. Unlike Mr. Zapeta:
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.
Despite his legal transgressions, Mr. Zapeta seems convinced that he's in the right:
"They are treating me like a criminal when all I am is a working man," he said.
Dismissing protestations of innocence, the legal apparatus is making sure that situation is going to be resolved:
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."