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U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy took a few minutes Thursday to note the irony of sentencing an illegal immigrant to prison when the man, Fidel Castro-Gonzalez of Mexico, pretty much embodies the qualities President Bush extolled in a recent push for a new "guest worker" program.

"It is as if the president was describing you, Fidel Castro-Gonzalez," Molloy said.

In a Jan. 7 speech, Bush said: "I have known many immigrant families, mainly from Mexico, and I have seen what they add to our country. They bring to America the values of faith in God, love of family, hard work and self-reliance - the values that made us a great nation to begin with."

The problem is that Castro-Gonzalez was deported in July 2000 and knew he shouldn't have been in the United States. Yet he returned - seeking health care, a job to support his extended family, and time with his wife, who had also been working in the United States. All told, he has spent approximately 25 years in the United States.

He was arrested in Missoula County on July 7, after a traffic stop. He was identified at that time as a previously deported Mexican national and was charged with illegal re-entry into the United States.

"I will take no more chances to come back to the United States again," Castro-Gonzalez told the judge. "I realize I have made a great mistake."

Castro-Gonzalez has lived in the United States for most of his life, crossing the border for the first time when he was 14 years old.

He has two prior drug convictions - one in North Carolina for possession of a small amount of marijuana with the intent to sell it, in 1995, and one in Washington for cocaine possession, in 1999. But he is also a skilled mechanic, and he told the judge he has cleaned up his act and works hard to support his wife and two young children, who were in the courtroom Thursday.

Sister Doris Faber, a pastoral associate at Christ the King Church, testified on his behalf, saying the church has been able to help Castro-Gonzalez's family but cannot support them. The children, both born in the United States, probably qualify for federal assistance, but their mother does not, she said.

Castro-Gonzalez's court-appointed attorney, John Rhodes, told the judge: "If Fidel remains incarcerated, his family is effectively abandoned."

Although the judge refused Rhodes' requests for a departure from the federal sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress, he agreed to the lightest sentence possible within those guidelines.

The result is an 8-month prison sentence, all but 40 days of which Castro-Gonzalez has already served since his arrest last July. When he is released, he must return to Mexico and may not cross the border again without specific permission to do so.

"Don't come back," Molloy said. "I mean, you're welcome if you get the right legal work, the right papers. Š You're a good worker, a good family man."

Reporter Ericka Schenck Smith can be reached at 523-5259 or at esmith@missoulian.com

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