Former drug informant sees hope for legal status fade
Hope is fading that an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, who spent more than a dozen years as a confidential informant for local law enforcement, might gain legal status in the U.S. Unable to find work in this economy, Ernesto Gamboa says he may decide early next year to give up and return to his home country.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For Ernesto Gamboa, the Salvadoran who spent 13 years as a confidential informant for local law enforcement, the prospects of gaining legal status in the U.S. have grown increasingly dim.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, one of the last vestiges of hope for the 41-year-old, told him in a letter last week that it lacked the resources and manpower to sponsor him for a visa.
And unable to find work in this economy, Gamboa, who entered the U.S. in 1992 and overstayed a visitor's visa, says he may decide early next year to give up and return home.
Under the supervision of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Gamboa began working as an informant with local law-enforcement agencies in the mid-1990s.
His work on major national and international drug investigations helped to win more than 90 federal convictions and led to seizure of money, weapons, vehicles and drugs, including more than 282 pounds of cocaine.
He parted ways with ICE near the end of a major drug investigation in May, when he said he was threatened with deportation after telling an agent he was broke and wanted to take a regular paying job on top of his informant work.
ICE soon arrested and detained Gamboa and moved ahead with plans to deport him. But under mounting pressure from other agencies, it released him after six weeks.
Now, Gamboa's status is not unlike that of millions of illegal immigrants nationwide — unable to find legitimate work or to travel — and with no obviously viable way to make it right. "I'm out and everybody's turned their backs," he said.
"It's really frustrating that after all these years they close the door and say, 'Forget about him.' "
Gamboa had won the support of retired law-enforcement officials who'd worked with him over the years as well as that of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who said the government owes him legal status, given his years of service to this country.
Cantwell wrote the Washington State Patrol, which had handled Gamboa as an informant, and the U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted some of the cases on which he worked, asking them to sponsor him for the so-called S visa, a hard-to-get status reserved for immigrants who cooperate with law enforcement.
Over the months, there's been a lot of finger-pointing among the agencies that worked with Gamboa as to which should help him obtain legal status. The State Patrol said it couldn't support the request — being a state agency rather than a federal agency — and later notified Gamboa by mail that it was terminating his status as a confidential informant. Under federal law, any law-enforcement agency can initiate the "S" visa process.
And last week, the U.S. Attorney's Office offered a more detailed explanation of its earlier refusal to sponsor Gamboa, saying its "core mission is to prosecute violations of federal criminal laws" and it lacks the personnel and resources for the kind of monitoring that would be required.
Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who represented Gamboa after he was detained, said Gamboa would not require the kind of monitoring to which the U.S. Attorney is referring because his cooperation with law-enforcement was in the past, and is not ongoing.
Still, Barón is not giving up, he said, and is having "some conversations that still may bear fruit."
Out of options
Gamboa said ICE has never paid him, as promised, for the work he did on a major drug investigation the agency wrapped up in July that led to 31 arrests and the seizure of weapons, vehicles and more than 19 pounds of methamphetamine.
"I worked 13 months without pay," Gamboa said.
But unable to find work, he said he may have little choice but to return to El Salvador. "I guess that's what they (ICE) wanted all along," he said. "They figured if I can't work, can't make money, that I'll just leave."Click on the image for a political message