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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
  • Next Article in U.S. »
From John Zarrella and Patrick Oppmann
CNN
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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.

Zapeta

Pedro Zapeta, an illegal immigrant, managed to save $59,000 while working as a dishwasher for 11 years.

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. Video Zapeta describes how he lost his money »

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.

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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. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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