He beats the red light but loses the immigration battle


June 6, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan

Richard Cuanang 1



Like most undocumented immigrants in the United States, Filipino Richard Cuanang is optimistic that a comprehensive immigration reform bill now pending in the U.S. Congress will be passed into law this year.

Unlike most of the estimated 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally, however, Cuanang will not be able to benefit from the proposed law that seeks to legalize their stay in the U.S.

Cuanang, who hails from the northern province of Ilocos Norte, is actually leaving the U.S. and flying back to the Philippines on Sept. 5. After staying illegally in the U.S. for nine years, Cuanang was finally caught and has been on deportation proceedings since 2011.

Rather than be forcibly deported by an immigration court and sent home in handcuffs like a criminal, Cuanang opted for voluntary deportation.

“No regrets,” Cuanang said at New York City’s Penn Station while waiting for his Amtrak train that will take him back to South Carolina, his home for the last 11 years. “I was able to earn well and send a good amount of money to my family back in the Philippines.”

Cuanang’s TNT days (TNT, for Tago Nang Tago, the Filipino term for the undocumented, which literally means “in perpetual hiding”) in the U.S. came to an abrupt stop as a result of a seemingly harmless incident: a traffic violation.

Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants have been removed (the new terminology used by the Department of Homeland Security or DHS) from the U.S. for violating traffic rules. From 2009 to 2011, nearly 95,000 undocumented immigrants have been by deported by DHS. During that same three-year period, traffic violations were the second highest cause for deportation, next only to drug-related offenses.

Still, that fact did not slow down Cuanang, who has been living in the fast lane in South Carolina since his arrival in 2001.

(Listen to Richard Cuanang’s take on his being an undocumented immigrant and his decision to opt for voluntary deportation.)

From legal to illegal

Cuanang, a pre-med graduate from Mariano Marcos State University in Batac, Ilocos Norte, came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa as an exchange student. He enrolled at the American Hospitality Academy in Hilton Head Island, SC. His visa expired one year after in 2002. Everyone on a J-1 visa is obligated to go back to his or her country of origin;  Cuanang opted to stay.

“I became undocumented when my visa expired,” he said. “I overstayed. I was planning to apply for an extension, or a new visa, but got derailed when I started earning. I had my apartment, I had a car. It seems that I was living a normal citizen’s life. I didn’t have any problem getting a job.”

He started working for hotels and resorts in South Carolina and became the vice president of the Filipino American association of three counties in the state.

Richard Cuanang 4


Beating the red light

Cuanang’s immigration ordeal began on June 18 2011. It was 11:30 pm, and he was driving home from work after a 13-hour work-shift.  He did not stop at a red light.

Just before reaching the next traffic light, the car behind him started flashing its blue light. It was a police car. “The moment I pulled over, I said to myself, ‘this is it,’” Cuanang said.

“You know I pulled you over because your tag (license plate or registration) is expired,” the police officer said.

When Cuanang showed his international driver’s license, the policeman said, “You know it’s no longer valid.”

After five minutes, the policeman called for a backup. He asked Cuanang to call a friend to come over and drive his car home.

The police officer told Cuanang that it’s not enough for the police to charge him and detain him overnight.

“But you have an outstanding warrant for an unpaid ticket,” the policeman said. “Do you happen to know or recall what the ticket was for?”

It turned out, Cuanang had a ticket each for speeding and driving without a license and had failed to pay a fine of $360.

The policemen then took him to the Beaufort County jail in South Carolina. “I thought that all I needed to do was to pay the amount and I would be out the next day,” Cuanang said.

When he went to the information counter of the county jail, the lady at the counter said “No, Mr. Cuanang. You have to stay here. You are being placed on hold by ICE.”

ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the main investigative arm of the DHS; it is the second largest investigative agency in the U.S. federal government. By then, ICE has begun investigating Cuanang’s immigration status.



Life in detention

Cuanang spent 10 days at the Beaufort County jail while waiting to be transferred to the ICE processing center in Charleston, SC, some 70 miles northeast of Beaufort County. The processing center is where detainees are brought for pre-processing; that is, to determine whether the detainee will be discharged or held at the ICE detention center and tried by an immigration court.

When Cuanang was transferred to the processing center, he was handcuffed, with chains around his ankle and with two security escorts and another detainee riding with him inside a secured van.

“Is this going to be the last time that I am going to see Beaufort?” Cuanang told himself.

At the Charleston facility, Cuanang said he and the other detainees were stripped, and were given physical checkups. Three days later, he was transferred again to the ICE detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

“That’s when you start seeing immigration judges,” said Cuanang. The judge assigned to handle my case gave me a court date and set my bail.



Cuanang was discharged July 17. He was let go at 3 p.m. but could not leave the detention center right away. He had no one to pick him up. The ICE facility in Georgia is a seven-hour drive from Bluffton, SC, where he lives.

“I had to wait for one of the guards to take me to the closest shuttle station,” Cuanang said. It was already 9 p.m. when he left the ICE center.

On his way out of the detention center, Cuanang had to ride an ICE van similar to the one that brought him to the center. But it did not matter to Cuanang. “It was the most serene and peaceful ride that I ever had,” he said. “There was fresh air; I feel like freedom was greeting me right there and then.”

On his second court date in October 2011, the judge told Cuanang that if he cannot not come up with an anchor by January 11, 2012, he will be subjected to a deportation proceeding.

An anchor is a reason or a person that can help someone facing an immigration court to remain in the U.S. An anchor could be a wife, children or relatives who can and will sponsor a non-citizen for a legal permanent resident status, or what is commonly called the green card.

“My aunt (in the U.S.) said she cannot sponsor me. I do not have a child. So the only thing I could do is to marry a U.S. citizen,” Cuanang said.

The marriage option

In January 9, 2012, Cuanang got married to a woman from Savannah, Georgia, Jessica James (not her real name). “She needed someone to help her, to support her financially because she had an injury,” Cuanang said. “And I needed someone who can help me acquire a green card.”

Cuanang brought James and their marriage documents to his January 11 court appearance. The judge gave Cuanang six months to submit the necessary papers that will allow him to stay legally.

Three months into the marriage, however, their union started to unravel. James refused to help her husband. She was supposed to submit a revised copy of her birth certificate, the last document needed to fix Cuanang’s immigration status.

“She has all the time to do it,” Cuanang said. “I asked her to give our lawyer her birth certificate by February. She did not deliver.”

Cuanang knew then that this was the end of the road.



Voluntary deportation

On May 8, Cuanang’s lawyer, James Cyrus, requested for voluntary deportation on Cuanang’s behalf. It took the judge only five minutes to grant his petition and set Cuanang’s departure date. He gave Cuanang until Sept. 5 to leave the United States.

“I already prepared myself,” Cuanang said about his voluntary deportation. “Even though ninety-nine percent of me do not agree, I am ready.”

“It made me a better person, a better member of my family,” he said, referring to his unauthorized stay in the U.S.  “I was able to provide my family with everything that I was not able to provide them when I was in the Philippines. I tried to help them the best way I could.”

Cuanang is going back to his mother, five sisters, a brother and three nieces in the Philippines.

He said he has big plans for his mother, who is retiring this November. “I’m planning to give her a huge retirement party. I plan to set up a foundation in her name.”

He plans to help manage his family’s farm in his hometown of Nagbacalan. He is seriously considering going to law school and launching a political career. At the moment, he is writing a book about his experience as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S.

After Sept. 5, a new chapter is about to begin for Cuanang.

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Video Highlights

Leaders of immigrant youth organizations perform at a recent protest action against immigration detention. Click photo to watch video.



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