Redemption Denied

by Jimmy Carter


Jorge “George” Aguilar doesn’t seem different than I remembered from a year ago. His tan face is fuzzy on my computer screen as we Skype 2,200 miles apart. It’s at night and he’s sitting in his mother’s pitch-black backyard in El Salvador with a white hoodie partially covering his face. He’s in an upbeat mood and tries to keep the conversation light, asking, “How have you been?”

When I respond by asking how he’s been, he tells me he’s unemployed. The job market in San Salvador is poor and he is still dealing with culture shock while adjusting to a country he hadn’t been in since he was 10. He’s also still adjusting to the shock that he had to go back. He tries to stay upbeat about his life. The reality is, it’s not that great.

He was supposed to call after his February 2011 court hearing in Tulsa, an appearance he thought would result in his finally becoming a free man again. I had been interviewing him for a profile highlighting his redemption story, his life as a changed man. I never got the call.

He was imprisoned at the hearing, a sentence stemming from his conviction for an aggravated felony. Finally, after spending almost nine months in prison, he was deported to El Salvador on December 10.

Aguilar, 28, had reformed and was forgiven by the victims of his crime. Nevertheless, he was one of the record 396,906 people deported in 2011 by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of the immigration debate is what happens to legal immigrants who commit a felony. Many of those stories, like Aguilar’s, end in deportation. Multiple appeals couldn’t keep him here.

Some redemption stories do not work out.

In November 2004, Jorge Aguilar and two other men drove around the back of a dimly lit church in their gray 1994 Dodge Caravan. They had crowbars, but one of them picked up a rock and hurled it through a window. Some churches had alarm systems. They ran from those. This church didn’t. They were in.

They looked for laptops, desktop computers, guitars, amps, and any money they could find. It was first-come, first-served. They argued over who got what, claiming items for themselves as they dashed through the church. The arguments would nearly turn violent, but the burglars eventually made a pile of items to steal, pulled the van around and loaded the loot.

The threesome caused about $25,000 in damages to the building and trashed what they didn’t take. The prize theft would have been the new 12-by-20-foot projector screens in the auditorium, but the men couldn’t detach them from their overhead cases. They were able to steal cameras and a computer modem, among other items.

It was the 11th and final church Aguilar and his co-conspirators robbed during a four-month span in 2004. They broke into churches in Tulsa, Broken Arrow, and Owasso, stealing and damaging approximately $250,000 of church property.

In 2011, Aguilar attended the same 10:45 a.m. service each week at a large Baptist church. The same church he robbed that November night in 2004.

“George broke in and found Jesus,” jokes Rev. Nick Garland, pastor of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow.

Maybe that was God’s plan, but it sure wasn’t Aguilar’s. He entered the U.S. as a legal immigrant to live in California with his alcoholic father at age 10, but was living with a friend, Kary Vincent, when he dropped out of high school in Oklahoma. The guys were close and Vincent’s family gave him his own bedroom in their home.

One night, he went into Vincent’s room and found items he knew didn’t belong to his friend, including a laptop that caught his eye. He was mesmerized. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Where did you get these things from?”

“We stole it from the church right down the street,” Vincent explained. “You aren’t going to tell anybody are you?” Aguilar assured Vincent he wouldn’t. He went back to bed thinking about having laptops. He couldn’t sleep. He got back out of bed and went to Vincent’s room. Aguilar wanted in.

He would later steal the laptop from Vincent.

Months later, after robbing the 11 churches, Aguilar, Vincent, and others were arrested.

Aguilar was released from jail in 2004 after filing a written report and receiving a court date. He decided to try and garner sympathy by writing an apology letter to the churches he robbed. In the letter, he explained he was stealing because his mother in El Salvador was poor and he was sending her money. In reality, he hadn’t sent her anything.

“I know that there is no way that you could forgive me for all of the sin I have done to the church,” Aguilar had written. “I don’t think God could forgive me for what I have done. In fact, I know that God would not forgive me.”

For a while, it looked like Aguilar might be right. Ten of the pastors didn’t respond to the letter. Rev. Garland was the only one to reply, setting up a one-on-one talk that resulted in Aguilar accepting Christ. That was genuine. It made sense. He needed direction.

Shortly after, Garland presented Aguilar to the church.

“George, you came into my office weeping and crying, asking for forgiveness,” Garland said. “God has already forgiven you. I will show you today, the people will forgive you, too.” He asked the congregation to come tell Aguilar if they forgave him.

“Half the church stood up,” Aguilar recalled.

Church members poured into the aisles, rushing to meet Aguilar, telling him they forgave him. They surrounded him, hugged him and held his hand. He was crying. They were crying. He looked up to the pulpit. Garland stood there, arms crossed, looking at the scene with tears streaming down his cheeks.

The church adopted Aguilar. Members wrote letters to the judge on his behalf. Following the emotional service, he met a family, the Poffens, who took him in. He worked for Roger Poffen’s flooring business and stayed in the family’s house. He became close with Amy, Roger’s wife. He bonded with the family’s two children, Paige and Tristan.

He finally had a family.

LISTEN: Bobby Berryhill served with the Oklahoma National Guard for 16 months in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s lived on and off the streets ever since.

* * *

First Baptist of Broken Arrow was one of five churches that dropped charges against Aguilar. Six did not. He faced five years in prison for the six felonies for second-degree burglary. He cooperated with law enforcement and helped get back as many of the stolen items as possible. He and his friends had kept some, but sold others. He was sentenced to eight months in prison and five years of probation.

Aguilar lived with the Poffens for the next two years, working for Roger’s flooring company. He got to travel on frequent family vacations, a luxury he had never before experienced. Christmases were bigger and better than they had ever been.

He was still irresponsible, though. He acted like a kid. He and Tristan were buds. They played video games together, watched cartoons. Aguilar would blow his paychecks on clothes and video games instead of saving money to move out.

Eventually, he started growing up. He moved out of the Poffens’ house to live with his brother. He went on mission trips and served as a church youth camp counselor. He fit in well in both settings. His campers loved him. He began reading the Bible often, genuinely curious and wanting to learn. He even listened to sermons on CD while driving the flooring company’s truck in late 2008. Aguilar, at the age of 24, was growing up. He met his future fiancée, Kara Culp, while doing volunteer work.

* * *

Everyone knows that near-death feeling that comes when you lose your balance while leaning the back two legs of a four-legged chair. One moment you’re fine. The next you’re off balance and realize you shouldn’t have been leaning back in the first place.

Aguilar fell in late 2008.

It happened while he was driving home from work. He remembered the letter full of lies he wrote to the churches. He hadn’t thought about it since writing it. At the time it was written, he hadn’t met Garland. Hadn’t met redemption. Once he accepted Christ, he was caught in a whirlwind of change. New friends. New family. New job. New way of thinking.

The independence he achieved by moving out of the Poffens’ house, the growth he felt when listening to audio sermons in the car, the relationships he’d formed because of his faith—in his eyes, they were part of the lie.

He couldn’t shake the guilt. He was viewed as a celebrity at church. Members regularly approached him to tell him they were proud of him for his life change. “You have no idea,” he would think. It was all tainted.

Finally he broke down and told Amy Poffen. She forgave him, but chastened him. “Brother Nick gives you the money and then you go buy TVs and stuff? You need to pay him back for that. You didn’t do anything but steal that money.”

So he told Garland and Culp. They forgave him. In time, he forgave himself. He felt whole.

Aguilar met Culp while volunteering at Welcomers International in Tulsa, where she served as director for of the outreach program for international students and immigrants. He helped teach english classes and assisted with Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, while leading a weekly Bible study.

Whenever Aguilar passed a homeless person on the side of the road while driving home from work, he would continue to his house, make sandwiches and chips, then take them back, providing a meal and conversation for a stranger.

“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” Culp said.

For a year, he enjoyed a clear conscience, clean heart, and no legal issues. It didn’t last.

* * *

The first sign of trouble came in 2009 when ICE ordered his appearance in immigration court. He was facing deportation. In March 2010, the prosecutor terminated the case without prejudice. Aguilar could still be deported at a moment’s notice, but the prosecutor had decided against taking action.

I met him in late January 2011 to work on a profile story. We developed a friendly relationship through interviews and, as the story neared completion, he told me about an upcoming court appearance. It was a formality and he was on the verge of being a free man, he thought. Two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, a new prosecutor reversed the previous decision. By pleading guilty in 2004, Aguilar had unwittingly given ICE the freedom to take away his residency and deport him. He was going back to El Salvador.

A new immigration attorney, David Sobel, filed appeals on Aguilar’s behalf with the U.S. 10th Circuit and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. He argued that his client wouldn’t have made the plea agreement if he had been made aware of the consequences. Who would willingly open the door to being barred from their adopted country? The basis of Sobel’s argument is a May 2010 Supreme Court decision for the case Padilla v. Kentucky, which ruled that criminal defense attorneys were required to inform immigration clients of the deportation risks accompanying a guilty plea. Mark Harper, Aguilar’s defense attorney in 2004, had not done that.

* * *

The problem was, the ruling was six years too late for Aguilar. The 10th Circuit Court ruled that Padilla v. Kentucky could not be applied retroactively.

As the appeal process dragged on, Aguilar sat in prison, where he received piles of mail from church members. He started a Bible study for fellow inmates and preached almost every day, leading more than 20 people to accept Christ. He gave away his commissary food to other inmates. If an inmate couldn’t afford a call home, Aguilar provided his phone card. He voluntarily cleaned disgusting prison toilets and spent hours translating legal paperwork for inmates who couldn’t read English.

“I found myself a lot getting on my knees in the cell and praying for the officers,” Aguilar said. “Praying for the judge that judged me unrighteously. Praying for the prosecuting attorney and the immigration officers who deal very shrewdly with a lot of people, not only me.”

Nothing could help Aguilar. Not even the offices of Oklahoma U.S. Senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe contacting ICE on his behalf. His actions and attitude went unaccounted for. At least in the eyes of ICE.

“They don’t take that into account at all,” Sobel said. “It’s shocking to me that they don’t, but that is the law. Immigration law is extremely harsh. There is no rehabilitation aspect to it, with a few minor exceptions. It is very tough when you know the individuals and know what is going on.”

Culp expressed her disgust during a phone conversation. “It’s just the fact that he’s like a number on a piece of paper and no one cares who he is. I lead that ministry and unfortunately, George isn’t the only one. He isn’t the crazy exception. It happens quite frequently.”

Despite keeping a positive attitude the night I spoke with him on Skype, Aguilar admitted that, “As a human being, it does hurt. I think about it sometimes and I’m just like, ‘Man, I can’t believe what they did.’ It was just so unjust. You have no idea how much backup I had. Even with that, there’s no mercy. It just shows how much immigration couldn’t give a rip.”

* * *

Aguilar described to me how he was chained hand and foot on the December plane ride back to El Salvador, a country and culture he had last been a part of as a young child. His mother and sister, Carolina, met him at the San Salvador airport. He barely recognized Carolina. She had been a child, like him, when he left. Everything was different than what he remembered, what he had grown accustomed to in the United States.

“I spent all my life in the U.S.,” Aguilar said when I spoke to him via Skype two months after his deportation. “So now I’m coming over here. The people are different. The culture is different. The way people act, speak, handle themselves—it’s different. I just still have an American mentality.”

Aguilar lives with his mother. The average annual salary in El Salvador was $3,431 in 2010. A construction job similar to his in the U.S. barely provides enough money to live off of in El Salvador. Despite the low salaries, he says prices for food and household items are similar as in the U.S. He doesn’t have a car. He was offered an opportunity to field phone calls for a Dell computers customer support call center, a job that paid $700–800 per week—big money in his new old home. He doesn’t want to take it.

“I’m not the type of person that sits in a cubicle taking phone calls,” Aguilar said. “I’d be miserable.”

He wants to be a missionary and start a church in San Salvador supported by First Baptist, something Garland told him the church would try to help him accomplish down the line. In the meantime, he found a new church in San Salvador and went on a mission trip to the Honduras in March, trying to get plugged in to make his ministry goals a reality. He still has a soft spot for homeless people, stopping to provide them with water and food whenever he can, buying trash bags from homeless men for 25 cents even though he doesn’t need any.

In a way, Aguilar is homeless. Despite living with his mother, he can’t help but feel alone at times. He’s a world away from his friends, his pastor, and his fiancée. He and Culp got engaged after he was detained, leading me to joke with him that he must be a smooth talker. “She’s says that to me, too,” he laughs. She visited him in mid-February, the first time they hadn’t been separated by a phone line or glass in a prison since his detainment. Her visit was bittersweet. They were reunited, but only for a few days. She is unable to relocate to El Salvador because of family obligations. They Skype more often than they talk on the phone because while he can get 150 minutes of phone time for $3, she has to pay $5 for 30 minutes.

Visiting her in the states is, of course, not an option. His road to reentry into this country will be long and potentially impossible. Sobel has to win both appeals for his case to even be reopened. There’s no certainty either will be resolved in 2012, though Sobel is hopeful, especially after the 10th Circuit Court granted a rare oral argument for May. Even if the appeals are successful, the battle is far from finished. “None of those, if you win, are automatically going to get him back,” Sobel said. “He’s not close to coming back to the US. We would have to prevail in all the cases and then move to try and re-open his case and try to get him back. That’s going to be a long and arduous task, assuming that it can even be done.”

From a legal standpoint, Aguilar’s conversion and subsequent reform is meaningless. He might have found Jesus when looking for laptops to steal, but, in the end, he was reserving his one-way ticket away from the only place he’s ever considered home.