They searched for a better life but instead found tragedy.
Roberto Mendez Garcia came from Guatemala to the Yakima Valley with his 17-year-old daughter, Petrona Mendez Ruiz, in search of work.
Garcia wanted to send money home to the rest of his family. Ruiz wanted to earn enough money to build his own little house in their miserable Guatemalan village.
But Ruiz’s plan and life came to an abrupt end on June 1, 2019 in a field on the Yakama reservation.
Ruiz and his father had only been here about three months. They were weeding and planting small trees outside Wapato when a drunken motorist drove into a field where a team of women was working.
Unable to pull away, Ruiz was crushed and crushed. Garcia, working in a nearby field, was called to the scene. He was told that his daughter had had an accident.
The drunk driver’s SUV had to be lifted off her tiny body.
In January, the driver – Joshua Cole Sampson – was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter in federal court.
Meanwhile, Garcia remains here, mourning the death of her daughter and working and sending money to the rest of her family in Guatemala.
“I feel very alone, very sad, but it’s a moment in time,” Garcia said through an interpreter. “There are days when I am really sad. But when I think about the living conditions back home – the poverty – I realize that I have to be here right now.
Garcia said he wanted to speak to a lawyer about Sampson’s relatively light sentence.
“The hardest part of it all is the trial,” Garcia said. “I am sad that the person who killed my daughter will be released at such short notice.”
Prosecutors have requested a three-year sentence. But U.S. District Court Judge Stanley A. Bastian followed the recommendation of defense attorney Alex Hernandez, who argued Sampson had no criminal history, was remorseful, had been in a drug addiction program and was sober for over a year.
Sampson was credited with the 153 days he has already served in Yakama Tribal Jail, leaving about 13 months on his sentence.
Sampson might have faced a drive-by homicide and a stiffer sentence if he was charged in state court.
Under state law, motorists who kill someone in a crash while under the influence face vehicular homicide charges, which carry a maximum jail term of life imprisonment and a fine of $50,000.
Sampson was charged in federal court because he is Native American and the incident took place on the reservation. Federal authorities generally exercise jurisdiction over major crimes committed by Native Americans on tribal lands held in federal trust.
But jurisdiction over the Yakama reserve is not always clear. The reservation is a patchwork of tribal and non-tribal land with a mix of tribal and non-tribal people. State authorities often assume jurisdiction for reservation crimes committed on non-tribal lands when the victims or suspects are non-native.
Ruiz was not Native American, and the field where she was killed is non-tribal land. Because the suspect was a member of the tribe, Yakima County Sheriff’s Deputies turned the case over to the Yakama Tribal Police.
Garcia was not kept informed of any investigation into her daughter’s death and received only one notice from her supervisor in 2019 that Sampson would be tried in the Yakama Tribal Court, which does not have the power to prosecute criminal crimes.
Garcia was not informed of any tribal court results. Nor was he told when Sampson was tried in US District Court more than five months later.
Keeping in touch with Garcia may have been difficult for authorities. He has moved several times and, like most agricultural workers, his workplace changes as he follows the various cultures.
Garcia faces communication barriers. He speaks an indigenous dialect of his homeland. Spanish is his second language and he cannot read or write. He said his daughter would help him read.
“I can only write my name,” he said.
Garcia struggles to reach a lawyer. He hopes to support his family there.
His wife and other children – three sons aged 12, 10 and 9 and a 19-year-old daughter – live in a two-room house in Zacualpa, El Quiche, a poor village in Guatemala.
They have no electricity or running water.
Garcia sends her family $125 a week. They spend about $110 a week on food, he said.
“I would like to send more than that,” he said. “The case – that’s why I don’t send more than that.”
He’s saving for an immigration lawyer in hopes of bringing his family here.
“That’s my main goal,” he said.
Garcia said his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and the loss of their daughter had made her health worse.
“She is sick at home because every day she thinks of our daughter,” he said. “I don’t earn enough for a second opinion.”
Garcia struggled to get around until he bought a car from a friend last year for $1,500.
“I made payments,” he said.
Garcia could eventually apply for a U visa, which allows immigrant victims of certain crimes, including manslaughter, a four-year stay with work authorization. This would open the door for him to acquire a green card and possibly apply for citizenship.
This process would not happen any time soon. There’s about a five-year wait for a U visa, said Tri-Cities immigration attorney Angelita Chavez.
Only 10,000 U visas are approved each year, and the number of applications far exceeds that, she said.
There are other requirements. Victims must show they helped investigators, she said.
Garcia was not contacted by investigators or alerted to the progress of the trial. He got the first notice regarding tribal court from a supervisor he worked under when his daughter was killed. There were other witnesses at the scene, including his employer.
Chavez said there may be other legal avenues for victims not participating in investigations to apply for a U visa.