From the beginning, the Hugo Diaz case has served as a referendum on national immigration issues. Tuesday’s sentence hearing in federal court was no exception.
The Evans-based homebuilder was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for harboring illegal aliens after an hour-long hearing that included a reading of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty and a condemnation of hiring practices that hurt American businesses.
“This case reveals to all of us the difficulties we face as a nation with the issue of immigration,” U.S. District Judge Randal Hall said.
At one table was Diaz, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the feet, who represented the estimated 8.4 million immigrants who came to the United States illegally in 2000. Diaz said in court Tuesday that he came in pursuit of better opportunities for his family, but only expected to stay a short while.
Four years into his stay, his wife, Blanca, crossed the border with their two sons and they moved to a trailer in Columbia County in 2005.
Diaz worked hard to establish his businesses, De La Fuente Contractors and Miranda Contractors. Brian McEvoy, his attorney, said in court Tuesday that FBI agents performing surveillance on Diaz would stay out until 2 a.m. watching him in his office.
McEvoy, a former federal prosecutor, said his attitude toward immigration has changed since representing Diaz and learning his story. In making his case to reduce the sentence, McEvoy included tax documents in his court papers that show Diaz paid more than $500,000 in state and federal taxes between 2005 and 2010.
The profits from Diaz’s businesses, which hired undocumented workers, eventually earned him more than $3 million in real property and other assets, all of which the federal government has claimed under forfeiture law.
“He’s a hardworking individual and an honest individual,” McEvoy said.
What seemed to bother Diaz more than confinement and losing his property was the prospect of being deported and separated from his two teenage sons and America. “My American dream is over,” Diaz said in heavily accented English.
Hall expressed limited sympathy from the bench. As a husband and a father, Hall acknowledged the urge to make a better life for your family. But in a stern, 10-minute statement, Hall outlined all the harmful consequences of entering the country illegally and why he took it seriously.
America has a long tradition of welcoming immigrants, but “we lump those who come here legally with those who disrespect our laws and do not wait in line...to pursue the American dream,” Hall said.