Long journey back home: Granted asylum after third deportation, Salomon Viera steps forward to share his story
New lease for Glenwood Springs-area resident after deportation stayed
The most incredible aspect of Salomon Viera’s story — that he hiked or train-hopped the 2,600 miles from El Salvador to Colorado with a bullet imbedded in his sinus cavity — is exactly what convinced immigration courts to stay his imminent deportation this summer.
Viera said he knows who shot him in the back and in the head when he was deported to El Salvador in 2005, but he doesn’t want to say. He still worries about retribution.
His friends know him better as “Gus,” and other than trips to visit family in California, his three deportations to El Salvador, and the last eight months at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Aurora, the Roaring Fork Valley has been his home for 30 years.
“I was born in El Salvador, but I grew up like any American kid. They brought me here as a child, so I had no recollection (of El Salvador),” Viera said in an interview at his immigration attorney’s office in Glenwood Springs.
Viera said he understands his mistakes. He has entered the country without documentation after each of his three deportations. He has also battled methamphetamine addiction.
He was arrested in September 2018 after a domestic violence conviction put him back on ICE’s radar.
But he owns up to his mistakes, and is relieved to finally be living legally in the country he calls home after an immigration court stayed his removal this summer.
“I’m telling my story because I’ve gone through a hardship when I was a young man,” Viera said. “And seeing this thing at the border, it’s sad, it’s depressing … not everyone who comes through the border is a criminal.”
“… like any American kid”
Viera grew up in California, but after his mother died when he was a teenager, he was pretty much left on his own. His family considered putting him up for adoption.
Viera knew a friend in Basalt who had offered him a place to stay, so he drove to Colorado in 1989 and camped for three weeks around Lake Christine, trying to get in contact with his friend.
He eventually found his friend’s uncle by hanging around the Frying Pan restaurant and bar during the day. The network in Basalt was strong, and he began building a life.
But he never got over his mother’s death and his difficult youth, and he turned to drugs. He said he also got into tattoos, which he admitted wouldn’t help him in later years.
The first time he found out he wasn’t a U.S. citizen was when he was arrested in Nevada for drug possession in 1997. He was there to visit his mother’s grave.
Officers found “a couple grams of meth” in his backpack, he said. Clark County prosecutors filed charges July 16, 1997, according to court documents, and Viera sat in jail all that fall.
The judge dismissed the possession and trafficking charges that December, but 15 days later, prosecutors charged him again with the same offenses, according to court documents.
Viera remembers the judge being confused about seeing him back in the courtroom.
Court records show Viera pleaded guilty to felony possession, with the trafficking charge dropped. He was given time served and released in April 1998.
That’s when the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the precursor to ICE, picked him up.
“In April 1998, a federal immigration judge ordered (Viera) removed to his country of origin; he was removed in June 1998,” according to a statement from ICE.
Long way from home
Viera is vague about what he did in El Salvador each of the three times he was deported.
“When I got to El Salvador, it was hard because I couldn’t get along with anybody,” he said. He didn’t speak the language well (he spoke Mexican Spanish and ‘Spanglish,’ a combination of Spanish and English). He also dressed differently and acted differently.
He tried to work, but got harassed by police. So, he decided to try to get back to Colorado.
“That first time, I train hopped all the way back. It took me three months to get to the border, across Mexico,” he said.
INS encountered Viera again in Denver in July 2001, “after Viera illegally re-entered the United States,” according to ICE. He was again removed that December.
He again made it back to the states, got picked up by ICE in Grand Junction on a marijuana charge, and was deported to El Salvador for a third time in January 2005.
Bullet in his head
The third time he made the trek across Mexico, he had a bullet in his skull after being shot twice in the back while in El Salvador. The other bullet exited his body near his neck.
“I had made my peace with God,” Viera said. He said his only thought was that he had to get home.
Viera says he was walking through the jungle of southern Mexico when a soldier put a gun to his head and told him to freeze.
The soldier told him to sing the national anthem of his country, but Viera could only remember the pledge of allegiance. So he recited it, and the soldier said he didn’t belong there.
“He took out 50 pesos out of his pocket, and said, ‘walk that way about half a mile and get on a bus,’” Viera recalls.
He train hopped, hitchhiked, and eventually made it back to Glenwood Springs, where a doctor removed the largest bullet fragment from the base of his skull.
Viera has pictures of the x-rays showing the bullet fragment before surgery, and the fragment once it was removed in Glenwood Springs.
Deepening his roots
After that, he tried to keep a low profile. He started dating Angie Waters in 2009, and they had a son, Warren, in 2012.
He got a job with Pioneer Steel, and helped set the beams for the new Grand Avenue Bridge.
“I was there setting the first piece of steel, and I was there putting the last bolt on that bridge,” Viera said.
Viera’s relationship with Waters was not healthy, he said, and she called the police on him, after they had broken up, in October 2017.
The allegations in the affidavit for his arrest are troubling. He was charged with felony assault and menacing, and took a plea deal for misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to time served (three days in jail) and one year of probation in April 2018.
He finished the work on the Grand Avenue Bridge, then moved to a new project in Snowmass.
ICE took notice of his guilty plea, and arrested him as he was going to work in September 2018, as part of a targeted immigration enforcement operation.
“Can’t thank her enough”
It was Viera’s ex wife, Waters, who found Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Lucy Laffoon and convinced her, lat last fall, to take the case. It had barely been a year after the violent fight that put Viera in jail, and later, into ICE custody.
Laffoon was moved by Waters’ story and took the case, but was skeptical that anything could be done.
Viera was not eligible for asylum, since he had been deported three times. What’s worse, he had a criminal record.
“On the face of the matter, my advice was that we should prepare for the imminent deportation of Gus,” Laffoon said.
They discussed the possibilities of arranging his travel to Canada or elsewhere in South America if he was deported.
All his siblings, who are significantly older (one of his sisters is nearly 80 years old), are U.S. citizens. Laffoon contacted them, advising they say goodbye to Viera.
“Gus knew that this deportation meant the end of his life. It was almost like making funeral arrangements,” Laffoon said.
There was one option beyond asylum to stay the removal order, but the standards were even higher.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, as implemented by the U.S., allows for a stay of removal if the subject faces imminent death or harm upon return to his or her deportation.
But the threat of death or harm must be either at the hands of public officials, or with the knowledge and “acquiescence” of public officials.
For example, a Ghanaian immigrant was granted asylum under the Convention due to her fear of female genital mutilation. But in 2003, the asylum was reversed: “Although the practice was widespread, the (Ghanaian) government had not acquiesced to the practice because it had been made illegal and public officials had condemned the practice,” according to the Congressional Research Service’s summary of the final order.
Making the case
It was a long shot, Laffoon told Viera. But he wanted to take it.
“A slight chance, when you’re sitting ‘in death row,’ is a lot of hope,” Viera said.
Laffoon describes the strategy as her “biggest Hail Mary ever.”
“I’m not one to believe, but I did go to a Catholic law school, so I’m supposed to be a Catholic lawyer,” Laffoon quipped.
She and Viera went into the hearing “with fists up,” and a number of people showed up to support him. She describes the judge as tough, but just.
Waters had assembled her own family members, Gus’ friends and coworkers. They wrote letters attesting to his character and importance to the community.
Within minutes of the hearing, the judge dismissed those things as irrelevant to the case.
Instead, they laid out all the facts of his deportations, his medical records, as well as his criminal convictions, and put it in the judge’s hands.
One thing they could not deny was that Viera was shot in El Salvador. Viera also took the stand himself, and Laffoon believes his credible testimony went a long way in the case.
“I cannot tell you specifically what made us win the case,” she said. “I walked out of there with a very heavy heart.”
About a month later, she received word that his removal was stayed, and the government would not be appealing the decision.
“I opened it up, and just fell to my knees and prayed,” Laffoon said.
Viera was released under supervision on June 10. Waters drove to Denver to pick him up.
Every six months, Viera has to check in with immigration officials. Otherwise, the conditions of his residency in the U.S. are light.
He is still friends with Waters, and because of Warren, will be friends forever, “whether we like it or not,” he said.
“I can’t thank her enough,” Viera said.
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