- Associated Press - Sunday, May 14, 2017

For 15 days, Jose Gonzalez Ochoa traversed the Mexican desert, his feet bleeding as he headed for the U.S. border.

At the time, he was only 13 years old, and as he trudged along with his father, younger brother and a band of other immigrants, he felt he was dying of thirst and exhaustion.

Just days before he had been living in Guatemala with grandparents who cared for him after his parents migrated to Columbus. His father, Jose Gonzalez Sr., had left Guatemala when the boy was only 2 years old; his mother emigrated a year later.

“My dad called me one day and told me I was coming to the United States,” Ochoa said, reflecting on his reunification with the man who was practically a stranger. “A few months later, he came to Guatemala and said, ‘OK, we’re leaving.’”

Ochoa thought they would come to America by plane. He soon discovered that he wouldn’t enter the country so easily. Yet, he was too young to realize the impact that crossing the border would have on his life.

Now, seven years later, Ochoa - a 2016 Shaw High School graduate - is a detainee at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin after being arrested by a Harris County sheriff’s deputy on Easter Sunday. He shared his story during a telephone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer from the facility.

Ochoa, 20, said he was arrested while driving with his girlfriend, Marta Lopez, to West Point Lake for a family picnic. He took the wheel because Lopez had worked all night and was too tired to drive. The deputy stopped him in Hamilton for going a little over the speed limit, he said, and asked for his paperwork. Ochoa didn’t have any. So he was arrested for driving without a license. He spent two days at the Hamilton jail before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took him into custody for being in the country illegally.

Lopez, a native of Spain who came to Columbus as a high school exchange student, said she met Ochao while they were both ESOL students at Shaw High School. They graduated in 2016, and started building a life together. The day he was arrested she waited at the police station for 15 hours before she realized what was happening. She broke down in tears when she learned Ochoa wouldn’t be released.

“I get home and I’m in shock,” said the 18-year-old woman, who has a green card. “I’m freaking out and calling all the teachers. … I’m just like, ‘I’m going to get you out of there Jose. I’m going to get you out of there. I’m so sorry. It was my fault.’”

Since then, Lopez and the couple’s former ESOL teacher, Rebecca Hagues, have been trying to get Ochoa out of the detention center and prevent him from being deported. They say he is the victim of domestic violence inflicted by his father, who was deported to Guatemala. The father has threatened to kill Ochoa if he returns to the country, Ochoa said.

So Lopez hired Britt Thames, a Macon attorney, to handle the case. She also has been collecting school recommendation letters, school reports and other documents. On Monday, she launched an online GoFundMe campaign titled “A Visa for Jose” to help him stay in the country.

“If Jose gets out, he’s going to get out with a visa so he can go to school, be a dentist like he wants to, and just be a normal guy,” she said. “I understand that we want to deport bad people, but I also want people to understand that Jose is a good person, he deserves to be here and he wants to be here. It’s just not fair for him right now.”

In a letter to the immigration judge, Ochoa wrote that he and Lopez plan to marry and have a family: “The only thing that scares me is the fact that I can lose her.”

Thames said Ochao was “systematically beaten and abused by his father.” He believes Ochoa qualifies for a U visa, which is granted to victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to help authorities with a pending case. He already has filed a bond motion with the immigration court for his release.

“We’ve contacted the prosecutor’s office with Muscogee County and they have provided us with evidence that he was the victim of a domestic violence case at the hands of his father, who has since been deported,” said Thames. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to get a bond set for him based on the totality of the circumstances.”

David Ranieri, senior assistant solicitor general for Muscogee County, said his office has a pending case against Jose Gonzalez Sr., stemming from a Sept. 27, 2016, incident. He said the father was charged with simple battery, physical harm and family violence after allegedly “pushing and punching” his son.

Prior to that incident, Ochoa said his father had kicked him out the house for refusing to drop out of high school to work full time in his mechanic shop. The teen stayed with friends temporarily, and then started living on his own. At the time, he was only 17, and worked multiple jobs to support himself. He said he has received help from his pastor, teachers and friends along the way.

On the day his father was arrested, his mother had called to say that Gonzalez was being abusive and she needed Ochoa to come by the house. When Ochoa tried to stop the violence, his father assaulted him, he said. Lopez said she witnessed the incident and called the police. They say it wasn’t the first time that Gonzalez Sr. had been abusive to Ochoa and his mother.

Ranieri said Gonzalez Sr. was booked into the Muscogee County Jail and released on bond several hours later. “I’ve heard he’s been deported but I haven’t verified that,” he said.

When asked if he is cooperating with Ochoa’s attorney, Ranieri said: “We don’t have anything to do with visas. All I can do is certify that Jose Gonzalez Jr. is a victim of alleged family violence, and that’s what we’ve done.”

He said the father has a court date scheduled for June 30, and if he doesn’t show up, a warrant will be issued for his arrest.

“If he’s been deported to whatever country he’s from, then I don’t know that it would mean a whole lot, unless he came back into this country,” he said.

Hagues, currently an English teacher at Calvary Christian School, said she taught Ochoa and Lopez while working at Shaw High School where Ochoa was an outstanding student.

“He was really mature as a freshman and very concerned about his classmates; a really good leader at a young age,” she said. “So as he progressed through our program, I came to really rely on him when we had new students, because he was very quick to take them under his wing to show them the ropes.”

She recalled Ochoa’s reaction to a speech that President Barack Obama delivered concerning the Dream Act, a legislative proposal that aimed to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children who grew up in the United States. “I saw him tear up to see our president saying that a hard-working immigrant - basically like Jose, working in school trying to get his education - was exactly the type of person to stay in our country.

“You could see how it affected Jose to actually have someone in our country’s leadership that was offering him acceptance,” she said. “Because so many of these kids they don’t feel like they belong in their home countries - because they don’t really remember it well. But then they don’t feel like they belong here either.”

Hagues said Ochao made good grades and might have qualified for Georgia scholarships, but he couldn’t apply because of his immigration status. So he spent the last year trying to earn the money himself. She said she and other teachers had been helping him with his immigration paperwork before he was detained.

Jose was adamant that he wanted to finish school and he wanted to do things the right way and he thought the only way that he could get his citizenship is if he got his diploma,” she said. “He wanted to go to college.”

Thames said Ochoa has no prior criminal record. He is an active member of the community who volunteers for the less fortunate and helps his mother with his younger siblings, who are U.S. citizens.

Mr. Gonzalez Ochoa successfully graduated from high school last year, despite the difficult circumstances he found himself in after his father kicked him out of the family home for refusing to quit school to work full time for no pay for his father,” he wrote in the email. “Many of Jose’s teachers have written letters of support for Jose and will vouch for his good character. Many community members agree that Jose is a great person and speak highly of him.”

In the phone interview from the detention center, Ochoa said he stays in a big cell with 75 people. He’s not allowed to leave the area except for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He fears being deported, but he remains hopeful despite the circumstances.

“I’m not a criminal, I don’t want to hurt anybody, I just happen to be here,” he said. “But now that I’m here. I already have a life; my friends and my teachers, they are my family. They’re trying to do everything to help me. And I just want to have a normal life with the people that I love.”

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