Illegal Alien Keeps $2 Million : Lottery Winner May Also Get a Free Trip to Mexico

Times Staff Writer

A young San Jose laborer--who admitted that he is an illegal alien after winning $2 million this week in the state lottery--will get to keep his fortune, but he may have to leave the United States to spend it.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service launched an investigation into the status of Jose Caballero, a 24-year-old furniture deliveryman, after news reports of his windfall reached INS offices Tuesday.

“He’s no different than any other illegal alien,” said Harold Ezell, INS regional commissioner. “He will not get preferential treatment nor get ignored by us because he won all this money. . . . We’re after illegal aliens who are taking the jobs of U.S. citizens.”


Caballero, a bachelor who slipped across the border into the United States a year ago from his hometown of Apatzingan, Mexico, became an instant celebrity Monday when he was one of four people to win the lottery’s top prize during a televised wheel-spinning event in Hollywood.

Until he became a big winner, the young man was thought to be in the country legally. But after the spin, Caballero privately unloaded his bombshell to lottery officials.

“It was one of those gambles he was willing to take,” said lottery deputy director Jamie Bailey, the first person Caballero told of his illegal status. “Never did he expect to be a $2-million winner.”

Lottery officials quickly assured the new winner, however, that the $2-million prize is his to keep.

“They said it was no problem,” Caballero said at a news conference Tuesday in San Jose, with his sister-in-law acting as interpreter. “They said, ‘You paid a dollar for that ticket. You got a winning number.’ ”

Faces Two Choices

Lottery director Mark Michalko explained that his agency is not in the immigration business. “People are able to come in from any place in the world, win the lottery and we pay them,” he said. A $70,000 check, representing the first installment on his winnings, has already been mailed to Caballero, said lottery spokesman Bill Seaton.


According to Ezell, once INS officers determine the facts in Caballero’s case, the young Mexican--who said he wants to use his windfall to open a furniture manufacturing business--will be “given two choices.” He can return to Mexico voluntarily, Ezell said, or face a deportation hearing in front of an immigration judge.

Brother Is Resident Alien

Caballero lives in San Jose with a brother, who is a permanent resident alien, and his sister-in-law, who is a citizen. In addition, the new winner has several cousins who reside here legally. Ezell said that under certain circumstances Caballero’s relatives could act as sponsors for him to stay.

Caballero faced his immigration woes philosophically.

“I am prepared to do whatever I have to do honorably,” he said through an interpreter. “But what I want is to become a citizen.”

Caballero said he is not interested in returning to Mexico even though he could live like a king there. At the current exchange rate, Caballero’s jackpot winnings--$1.4 million after taxes--would amount to about 680 million Mexican pesos.

IRS to Take 30%

“I love this country,” he said. “I love San Jose.”

The lottery’s $2-million winners are paid $100,000 a year for 20 years, minus 20% for federal income taxes. The Internal Revenue Service said Caballero will have a 30% bite taken from his check because he is not a U.S. citizen and that 30% will continue to be deducted should Caballero have to return to Mexico.

Caballero said he is concerned that he may have to pay both U.S. and Mexican taxes if he is deported.


Caballero left his parents and eight brothers and sisters in Apatzingan, 200 miles west of Mexico City, to sneak across the border in 1984.

“It was no problem,” he said when asked about crossing into the United States.

Caballero described his family as middle class--his father is a loan officer in a bank and his mother owns a fruit warehouse.

Caballero speaks little English, so his sister-in-law, Blanca Caballero, 22, has been pressed into service to field the barrage of questions coming Caballero’s way since Monday night.

His only English words Tuesday came in reply to a question about when he would like to become an American citizen.

“Right now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Caballero was not the only one who faced legal action after taking part in the lottery’s jackpot spin.

Prosecutors in Sacramento, Riverside and San Luis Obispo counties say they will attach all the winnings of Joseph M. Frontino, 33, a Riverside hospital worker, who won $10,000 in the lottery’s Oct. 28 spin-off.


Frontino owes a total of $11,600 to at least three children involved in Superior Court cases in the three counties, according to Michael Barber of the Sacramento County district attorney’s office.

The state has stopped payment on Frontino’s winnings, and a hearing is scheduled Nov. 14 in Riverside County Superior Court.