MIAMI (CBS4) – The Garcias helped daughter Fiorella with her homework earlier this month around the kitchen table in their home near Philadelphia, PA. They appeared every bit the happy family, and they were. Before Mom and Dad got busted in what they believe is a bigoted prosecution.
“We were arrested, we were handcuffed, we went to a jail cell,” said Hamlet Garcia at a news conference with the couple’s Miami attorney on Thursday. Hamlet and his wife, Oselia, were booked in Montgomery County Pennsylvania in August, charged with “theft of educational services.” They face possible prison if convicted.
Last year, the Garcia family moved out of the district for Pine Road Elementary school where Fiorella was in Kindergarten. They continued to take their daughter to class at the school for the last month or so of the year – and were charged with a felony.
The district attorney’s office says the Garcias benefited from the school district, without paying taxes.
“I couldn’t believe it at first. It didn’t seem real to me. I felt like I was having a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from,” Oselia Garcia said in a recent interview with the Univision television network.
Oselia is white. Her husband is dark-skinned Hispanic. Their child mixed.
The family, a rainbow of color, has reached out to a Cuban American attorney in South Florida, believing that their arrest was racially motivated. Fifteen other parents violated school district lines last year. Only the Garcias were prosecuted.
“It was a selective prosecution, to choose the only Hispanic that was involved,” said attorney Ricardo Corona at the news conference held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Coral Gables. “This is the kind of case that caused me to study law. It is why I became an attorney.”
Huntington Valley, where the Garcia’s lived, is a predominately white enclave outside of Philadelphia. The 2010 Census reports that scarcely 10 percent of the population is minority. Of more than 21,000 residents, fewer than 500 are Hispanic and fewer than 400 are African American. The Garcias say their daughter was one of only 14 minority students at the elementary school that serves 589 children.
The U.S. Department of Justice last year cited a community swimming pool for discriminating against black and Hispanic children.
The Garcia’s case has drawn outcries from a host of civil rights and other activist groups. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in lightly with a Facebook post saying, “Your zip code or socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.”
“It’s been like hell,” Hamlet Garcia said Thursday. “I never expected it. I came from a communist country where they do atrocities to people, I’m from Cuba.”
Garcia says two defense attorneys in Pennsylvania dropped off their case, because of community and political pressure.
“They also told me, you know, we’re not going to win this case in Montgomery County, because they’re very racist.” Garcia said.
Authorities in Pennsylvania say the Garcias were charged because they lied when confronted, insisting their daughter was eligible to attend the school. The Garcia’s deny that claim.
Hamlet Garcia’s voice choked as he described how he and his wife were arrested, saying she was made to use the restroom with security cameras trained on her and officers watching.
“It was very painful, and there was nothing I could do to help her,” he said. “You don’t have any idea how angry I was.”
Their attorney said the Garcia’s case is a, “South Florida issue because it is a Hispanic issue.”
“I know what it is to face discrimination for being Hispanic in this country,” Corona said.
He promises to provide the Garcia’s a vigorous defense against the criminal charges. The couple has offered to pay the school district for whatever it claims is owed, but thus far has rejected any notion of pleading guilty.
“On principle,” Garcia said.
Their daughter, Fiorella, is now in the first grade and attending private school.
The Garcia’s have a hearing on their criminal case in Pennsylvania next week. They will be represented, for the first time, by their new attorney – the Cuban American from Miami.