Legal aid prevents father’s deportation for long-settled traffic violation

Man in red shirt in front of house
Herbert in front of his house (photo: Lisa Helfert)

We tell Herbert’s remarkable story in our latest photo essay, created with the generous support of freelance photographer Lisa Helfert.

After a lifetime of escaping violence and poverty in El Salvador, 19-year-old Herbert came to the United States determined to make a better future. The life he built in Virginia – as a husband, father, business owner and leader in his community – was nearly destroyed by one traffic violation. Herbert was fortunate to find the help he needed to navigate an extremely complex immigration justice system.

The deportation order dated back to when Herbert first arrived in the United States. It had been suspended when he was granted TPS, then reinstated when he lost TPS. Herbert had never known of the original order and was shocked to learn he was marked for removal back to El Salvador. He was ensnared in a very complex legal web.

From El Salvador to Virginia

Born in 1981, Herbert spent the first decade of his life as a refugee from the brutal civil war in El Salvador. From 1980 to 1992, civilians were terrorized by death squads, children were recruited as soldiers and, according to the United Nations, more than 75,000 people were killed. When Herbert was an infant, his family fled to the mountains to escape the violence in their town. After a year in hiding, they crossed into Honduras, where they lived for 10 years in a refugee camp on scarce food and without potable water. When the family was able to return to El Salvador, Herbert went to work on a farm.

After the war, economic conditions remained very difficult in El Salvador, so when he was 19 Herbert joined his brother in Virginia. Although he was picked up and returned to the border shortly after he arrived, he applied for and received Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allowed him to legally stay and work in the U.S. Herbert first worked as a dish washer; but when a friend suggested a job with a national flooring company, he saw an opportunity to build a better future. “I saved money little by little, buying first one tool, then another tool,” he said. “Then I talked to the owner of the company and asked for a job.” He started giving Herbert small jobs, and “when he saw my work was good, he gave me bigger jobs. That is how I learned.”

Man in red shirt on phone outside house.
Herbert on the phone with his lawyer Nady. (photo: Lisa Helfert)

In 2006, Herbert was convicted of a traffic offense. He accepted the legal consequences of his action and became much more involved with his church. He also unfailingly continued to renew his TPS application every two years until 2013, when he learned that it had been revoked due to his 2006 conviction. This meant he no longer had access to a driver’s license, social security number, or authorization to work. The next blow came a few months later at a routine ICE check-in, when he learned there was a deportation order against him.

When Herbert learned of the removal order, he hired a “notario” to help him apply to have it cancelled. The notario, who has since been convicted of fraud, falsely led Herbert to believe she was an attorney. Notarios who present themselves as qualified to provide legal services routinely prey on unsuspecting immigrants like Herbert. The advice or actions of a notario can result in missed opportunities to obtain legal residency, unnecessary deportation, even civil or criminal liability for filing false claims. Herbert did not fully appreciate the seriousness of his civil legal issues or understand that working with a notario was likely to make them worse.

When Herbert learned that a 7-year-old, long-settled traffic violation had caused him to lose Temporary Protected Status, and that he was under a deportation order, he was terrified, not only for himself but even more so for his wife and U.S.-born children. All too often, families like Herbert’s are shattered because they don’t have the legal help they need to make their case effectively before an immigration judge.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Herbert became a victim of discrimination at the mobile home park where he lived when his landlord attempted to unlawfully evict his family. Despite the personal risk of getting involved in a federal fair housing litigation, Herbert believed it was right to stand up for his community and became a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit protecting the rights of Latino tenants. Through his involvement with this case Herbert met Nady Peralta, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program.

Representation by Nady, a legal aid attorney, made it possible for Herbert to get a fair and just outcome in his case. In 2016, his lawyer succeeded in persuading the court to reopen his immigration case (meaning that the court rescinded the removal order against him) on the basis that he’d been defrauded by a notario passing herself off as an attorney and had therefore not been advised by competent counsel.

Nady Peralta, attorney with Virginia's Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program
Nady Peralta, attorney with Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program (photo: Lisa Helfert)

In February 2019, Herbert won his immigration case because Nady succeeded in showing the judge both that Herbert is a pillar of his community, and that sending him back to El Salvador would cause grave harm to his children. Thanks to the civil legal help he received, this family can enjoy daily activities that most of us have the luxury of taking for granted, finally free of the fear of being separated.

Everyone in the United States has rights under our civil justice system. But it can be hard to know who to trust when you need legal help. Immigrants in particular are vulnerable to people who falsely claim to be attorneys but in reality charge thousands of dollars to make an already bad situation much worse, even resulting in unnecessary deportation.

We can see in the way you do your work that you’re not doing it for any kind of honors, you’re not doing it for money. You’re doing it with purpose, because you have love for your purpose and because you care about it. For that we are very grateful. 

— Herbert, about his legal aid lawyer Nady

Family with small business and five children

“I knew she was the lady for me!” Herbert’s eyes light up when he describes seeing his future wife Rosa at a party in Virginia, years after they had been childhood playmates in the Honduran refugee camp. She felt the same way, and six months later they married. In 2011 Herbert and Rosa established their own flooring installation business. Whether running the business, parenting, or mentoring young couples at their church, Herbert and his wife are a devoted team.

Family eating at table.
Herbert, Rosa, and family around the table. (photo: Lisa Helfert)

Their family now includes five children, ranging in age from 3 to 12. Time spent together includes nightly dinners, front-yard soccer matches, church every Sunday, and attending their daughter’s dance performances. The couple beams with pride when talking about their “babies,” especially the academic accomplishments of the older kids. “Your children reflect you as a parent,” Herbert says.