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JOURNAL Block That Saus USDA Food Cops Hold the Line on Breakfast at the Border BY MARY HULL CABALLERO WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine five Idaho potatoes and a link of chorizo sausage? For an El Paso man, it’s been anything but a full stomach. Instead, Francisco Escobar Jr. finds himself at the heart of a three-year battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has spent thousands of dollars in legal costs and airfare to exact what began as a fifty-dollar fine. When Escobar decided to challenge the fine imposed against him by a USDA inspector at an international bridge in Nogales, Arizona, his became one of the rare cases to work through the USDA hearing process. Fewer than one percent of the thirteen thousand citations issued each year for import violations are challenged, USDA statistics show. And given Mr. Escobar’s experience, it isn’t difficult to see why. USDA officials offer repeated warnings to those who’ve been ticketed that they might have to pay for court costs, airfare to transport Washington, D.C. officials to hear the case, and steeper fines than those assessed initially. Escobar contends those warnings make even the innocent rethink their decision to ask for an impartial hearing, and, in court documents, the USDA makes no secret that’s exactly the reaction it wants. Having lost at every step so far, Escobar is considering taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. In response to Escobar’s case, U.S. Representative Ronald Coleman plans to investigate the policies of the USDA. “He [Coleman] appreciates the fact the USDA has a very important job to do in en Mary Hull Caballero is a freelance writer living in El Paso. forcing the laws designed to protect the health and safety of the public,” said Jose Luis Sanchez, Coleman’s spokesman. “However, he thinks taxpayer money could have been spent more wisely in this particular instance.” In 1992, a USDA inspector found the groceries in a refrigerator and ice chest in Escobar’s motor home, when he was returning from a fishing trip in Mexico. Escobar, who teaches computer-aided drafting at El Paso Community College, said he told the inspector he’d forgotten about them and would throw them away. By that time, however, the inspector had already written a ticket for fifty dollars, charging Escobar with failing to declare Mexican agricultural items, although Escobar says he had purchased the potatoes and sausage at an El Paso grocery store and had the receipt at home to prove it. A supervisor offered to drop the fine to twenty-five dollars, but Escobar decided to request a hearing. When Escobar did so in writing, the USDA formally charged him with four violations of regulations prohibiting the importation of agricultural items, and increased his fine to two thousand dollars. Add that to his legal bills, and Escobar’s decision to exercise his right to a hearing has thus far cost him five thousand dollars. Escobar’s case has gone from an accusation of failing to declare prohibited items to smuggling. “I imagined that I would go before a judge and either end up paying twenty-five dollars, or having the ticket dismissed,” Escobar said. “I don’t regret spending what I’ve spent. To me, that’s cheap for a principle. Maybe I am a silly old man. I can be silly with my money, but the government shouldn’t be silly with ours.” Undeterred, Escobar’s challenge eventually led him to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which for the first time had to decide whether USDA regulations, intended to keep out certain foreign agricultural items, applied to groceries purchased in the U.S., taken to a foreign country and brought back. The appellate court sided with the government’s argument that the regulations do apply in such cases, even though domestic products are not specifically included among the prohibited items. The court also upheld the two-thousanddollar fine. Escobar, through his attorney, Mary 12 NOVEMBER 17, 1995