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Erling's story: Honduran man in Boone County faces deportation, loss of wife, kids

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometime in the coming weeks or months -- there is no set timeline -- somebody in a government office in Falls Church, Va., will decide the fate of Stella Sanchez and her Boone County family.

That person, one of the 15 members of the Board of Immigration Appeals, will have never met Sanchez or her husband, Erling, whose case is being decided. The person will instead render judgment based on dueling packets of information mailed by Sanchez and the Department of Homeland Security.

Erling Amado Lagos-Sanchez of Whitesville is being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the York County Prison, in York, Pa.

On July 19, his family appealed his case to the Board of Immigration Appeals but, unless the board intervenes, Lagos-Sanchez will be deported to his native Honduras, leaving behind his American-born wife and his three American-born children, Xavier, 5, Ellie, 2, and Amanda, 2 months.

In 2005, Lagos-Sanchez came into this country illegally. He has broken laws here. He has also lived here for more than eight years. He is raising three American children and he has become a beloved member of a small West Virginia community.

He is one of about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that, among other things, would create a 13-year path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants in the country.

That bill's fate in the U.S. House of Representatives is uncertain.

On Wednesday, the White House held a conference call with reporters to tout the economic benefits of immigration reform, saying it will raise the GDP and reduce the deficit.

The next day, Senate Republicans sent out a news release rebutting those claims, saying immigration reform would lower wages for working people.

Beneath the dueling economic claims, though, immigration reform is the story of immigrants -- and every immigrant's story is a human story, not a statistical one.

Eugene Ranson, Stella Sanchez's father and the former chief of the Chesapeake Police Department, doesn't think either side cares much about helping his son-in-law.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your oppressed," Ranson said, citing the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. "No, it seems like, in this country today, it's give me your rich, your nuclear physicists; don't give me your oppressed who will scrub commodes. He's a doggone good tile layer."

Stella Sanchez was born with muscular dystrophy and will need surgery to help her walk -- a surgery she can't get if her husband isn't around to take care of the kids.

This is her husband's story.

When he was a child, Lagos-Sanchez's family owned a shoe store in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and was, financially, fairly well off for the area.

When he was 12 years old, members of a gang came to his home demanding money and tied up his parents and his sister (Stella Sanchez has requested that the name of the gang not be published, for fear of retribution). Lagos-Sanchez had a cousin who was in the gang who told him that, if he wanted to protect his family, he needed to join.

For two years, Lagos-Sanchez was a low-level gang member, collecting money, running errands and making deliveries. When gang leaders asked him to murder somebody, he refused and tried to leave the gang, which resulted in gang leaders threatening his life.

He went home, told his mother that he needed to leave the country and went to the bus station to leave for Mexico.

There were gang members at the bus station. They shot Lagos-Sanchez three times: in his arm, side and leg.

He hid out and recovered the best he could at a friend's mother's house. Soon after, though, one of his closest friends was found murdered, with Lagos-Sanchez's name carved in the dead man's back.

(Honduras and neighboring Guatemala have long histories of rampant gang violence. In June of this year, the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa issued the following travel warning: "The crime and violence levels in Honduras remain critically high ... crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and the government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to address these issues. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.")

Lagos-Sanchez then successfully got on a bus and headed for Rosenberg, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where a brother lived. He was caught at the border and spent weeks living under bridges in Mexico before he snuck back across the border and made it to Rosenberg.

In Rosenberg, Lagos-Sanchez became friends with Ron Smith, a West Virginia native. On July 31, 2006, Smith introduced Lagos-Sanchez, by telephone, to his niece, Stella Ranson.

The two began a relationship over the phone.

In 2007, Lagos-Sanchez was beaten up by a gang member in Rosenberg (the gang is said to have started in Los Angeles and has since spread all over the Southern United States and through Mexico and Central America) and Smith received a threatening phone call from a gang member.

Smith then returned to his native West Virginia, buying a house on the East End of Charleston, and Lagos-Sanchez came along.

Lagos-Sanchez and Stella had a son in 2007 and were married in 2009.

In 2009, after consulting with several lawyers, Lagos-Sanchez applied for asylum, convention against torture and withholding of removal, three immigration statuses available for immigrants who fear for their lives if they are forced to return to their home country.

During that time, Stella and Lagos-Sanchez moved to Whitesville. Lagos-Sanchez became active in the Whitesville Baptist Church and helped out with a vacation Bible school. He joined the volunteer fire department. He became an apprentice underground miner, earning his mining card in 2011, and worked briefly at a Massey Energy Co. mine before being let go in mass layoffs.

Before things went awry, Lagos-Sanchez was doing custodial work and odd jobs at Daniel Chevrolet in Whitesville.

A hearing on his immigration status had been scheduled for Oct. 12, 2012.

Lagos-Sanchez is arrested

On Sept. 29, less than two weeks before his hearing, Lagos-Sanchez was shooting a handgun at a wooden target in his backyard in Whitesville. A neighbor heard the shots, got concerned and called the police.

The police came and wrote him a ticket, with a fine, for shooting within 500 feet of a house. He was taken down to the station but was released the same day and was allowed to keep the gun.

Three days later, though, Stella Sanchez went to pick up her husband after work at Daniel Chevrolet and he wasn't there. He had been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Oct. 10, two days before his hearing, Lagos-Sanchez was indicted by a federal grand jury in Beckley and charged with being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm.

Those charges were dismissed on Jan. 14, 2013, after Lagos-Sanchez agreed to plead guilty to a lesser state charge -- attempting to destroy property.

Lagos-Sanchez was sentenced to probation and time already served, but the next day, ICE picked him up and took him to the prison in Pennsylvania, where he remains today.

In April, an immigration judge ruled against his application for asylum, citing his recent arrest and his gang connection in Honduras.

On Friday, Khaalid Wells, an ICE spokesman, sent the following email statement:

"Erlin Amado Lagos Sanchez (sic) was removed from the United States in February 2005 and later illegally re-entered. He was arrested by local authorities in October 2012 before being turned over to ICE custody. An immigration judge ordered him removed in April 2013. He will remain in ICE custody pending the resolution of his immigration case."

Because Lagos-Sanchez is married to an American citizen he is eligible for a visa. However, because of a law designed to thwart marriages of convenience, he would have to apply for the visa from Honduras, and he would have to live there for five to 10 years.

Because of his history there, Stella Sanchez says that is impossible.

"If he sets foot in Honduras," she said, "he'll be killed."

Olivia Ranson, Stella Sanchez's mother, collected about 300 signatures on a petition supporting Lagos-Sanchez, first to bring to his April hearing, and then to send to the Board of Immigration Appeals along with his case information. According to census data, there are only 514 people in Whitesville, including zero Hispanics.

Praise from those who know Lagos-Sanchez is fairly universal.

"I could not have handpicked a better man to take care of my daughter and my grandchildren," Olivia Ranson said. "When that derecho hit last year, he was so afraid for the life of his family that he ran, ran over three miles in the middle of it to get to them instead of waiting it out."

"He works harder than anybody I know. My boys are good workers, too, but let me tell you he is a good worker," said Peggy Webber, Stella Sanchez's maternal grandmother. "He takes wonderful care of the children. I have watched him, he would change diapers, it didn't matter to him."

Loren Daniel owns Daniel Chevrolet, where Lagos-Sanchez painted trim, mowed the grass and cleaned cars for about six months before his arrest.

"He's a good worker, honest, and he was a productive member as far as I'm concerned," Daniel said. "I told his attorney that as long as he can legally work, I would hire the guy."

Lagos-Sanchez also worked for Henrietta Long, a 67-year-old Whitesville native who lives alone and is suffering from cancer and kidney problems.

Lagos-Sanchez mowed her lawn and cleaned out her garage and did other odd jobs.

"Anything I could do to help Erling out, I would," Long said. "He has three children he wants to take care of and a beautiful wife."

After the derecho last year, Lagos-Sanchez, unsolicited, brought ice and a flashlight to Long's house.

"Out of this whole entire town and the surrounding areas, no one came to check on me but Erling," Long said. "I even seen relatives pass by -- but Erling came."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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