Reefer Madness

Busted on a marijuana charge seven years ago, David Leon now faces a life sentence of exile from the United States.

In the dark and desolate desert five miles outside Arivaca, in a prime narco-corridor, David Leon realized that the trust he gave a man was going to cause him to be killed or arrested.

Leon had agreed on that winter night in 1996 to help his "friend" by driving his vehicle back to Tucson. The moment he opened the door to the GMC Jimmy, he knew he made a mistake: He smelled pot and then saw the plastic-wrapped bales that filled the small SUV.

"You never told me there was marijuana," Leon recalls telling the con, a man he met through their jobs laying carpet, tile and other flooring at businesses and government offices around Tucson. "I can't drive this. You lied to me."

But the man barked for Leon to get in and drive.

"I was in shock at what was happening," Leon says now. "I guess at the same time, I was afraid of what could happen out there. I got panicked when I saw the car. What came through my mind is, they have guns; he's already lied to me. What else will he do? Shoot me?"

Leon barely got underway on the drive that was supposed to end at Blockbuster Video at Mission Road and Ajo Way. He quickly saw a truck pass by, watched it make a U-turn and then felt himself sink as red and blue lights began to flash.

"I stopped, and the man said he was with customs," Leon says. "He pulled his badge and then a gun. I did what he asked me to do."

Leon was a easy target, according to U.S. Customs. Agents had watched from a distance this little operation--the stationing of the Jimmy, the packing and finally Leon's unwitting task to drive the load to Tucson.

David Leon is a man of faith and a man of trust. At 28, he has a beautiful wife, Guadalupe, and two beautiful daughters, Mariana, 7, and Adriana, 6. They are expecting another child in June.

He makes good money with his superb skill creating floors, including at the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices, where federal bureaucrats and agents are working to deport Leon to Mexico, a country he has not lived in since he was four.

Leon never had a fraction of the stability he has provided his family. His mother died in Nogales, Sonora, and he and his sister were abandoned by their father and put in the custody of a grandmother. When she died, they were separated in Tucson and in and out of Casa de los Niños and other agencies and placed with a dizzying 50 families.

But Leon managed, particularly with the help of two foster families, to attend Tucson schools and graduate in 1993 from Tucson High. A foster father taught him his trade, setting down carpet, tile and sheet vinyl. He did so first at Fiesta Floors and then at Tucson Commercial Carpet.

His boss, David St. Aubin, sings Leon's praises and is working to help Leon stay in Tucson.

Leon was putting together his materials for a job at the INS office when the con targeted him to "help" him retrieve his car from near Arivaca.

It seemed innocent.

"I was always the type to help. If you need help, I'll help. So I was helping this guy bring back his car," Leon said. "He picked me up at home that afternoon at about 4. It was a weekday."

Leon had not been in trouble before, but he was locked up briefly in Santa Cruz County after the bust. He eventually went before Judge William Browning of the U.S. District Court in Tucson. Browning, on senior status, has seen and heard them all. He is not judge likely to believe a story or an excuse. His sentence spoke loudly: The eight days that amounted to the time served. Leon went to a halfway house and served probation. Then Leon was free to get back to his life, his wife, his work.

But larger forces, completely unrelated to Leon's mistake and completely remote from his life, swept over. Congress, in response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, enacted tougher laws on resident aliens. Any felony resulted in certain deportation.

Leon was trapped by rules. He was a resident who was not eligible to apply for citizenship. His one strike puts him out. He learned that on a routine trip to INS to renew his resident card. Officials told him he had a felony and would be deported. He was locked up on the spot at the facility on Valencia and Country Club roads.

Reuben Emanuel is a Philadelphia transplant, a street-smart man who finished his third year of law school at the University of Arizona 32 years ago. He is a former city magistrate who is too experienced to be suckered.

He is fighting to get the federal government to invoke the "prosecutorial discretion" that INS Commissioner Doris Meissner addressed in a 13-page memo to regional and district directors, chief patrol agents and top INS lawyers as she prepared to leave office in November 2000.

Emanuel is handling what can be done in INS and other federal courts as he searches for the application of the Meissner directive issued when Bill Clinton, and not George Bush, was in the White House. Emanuel is searching for application of the rule of lenity.

"There is no justice in mandatory sentencing," Emanuel said. "Each case is different. Yeah, there are cases where there is pure criminal intent. That's not the case here. We had mandatory sentencing--that was in the territorial days with the territorial prison in Yuma. We did away with that. Now, it's back. They say it saves money. Well, the administration of justice costs money. Mandatory penalties take it out of the judge's hands and puts the whole situation in the prosecutor's hands. If we can open a door at the White House, I'm sure Mr. (Thomas) Baranick, the field office director for the INS in Phoenix, will get some direction. And I do believe in President George Bush."

Leon has a new day in court on Jan. 28. His case has attracted wide attention, in part to the broad support Leon has from his employers, colleagues, friends, clergy and motivated politicians. The story can be found at

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