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Man Gets Break in Fight to Stay Here

Immigration: Deportee sentenced to probation instead of prison for illegally reentering U.S.

July 31, 2001|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Good luck to you," a Los Angeles federal judge told Tony Alvarado on Monday as he sentenced the gang member turned model citizen to two years probation for illegally reentering the United States.

U.S. District Judge George H. King's award of straight probation came as something of a surprise.

The 30-year-old San Fernando man had expected to be sentenced to six months in prison under a plea agreement earlier this year in which his offense was downgraded from a felony to a non-deportable misdemeanor.

"I'm very grateful," Alvarado said outside the courtroom. "The judge was very lenient."

Alvarado's fight to remain in the U.S. has generated wide public notice.

An illegal immigrant almost since birth, Alvarado grew up in public housing, joined a street gang and went to jail at age 19 for possession of PCP.

Afterward, however, he "burned his gang clothes" and reformed, his defense lawyer, David Katz of Beverly Hills, said in court Monday.

Now married and the father of four boys, Alvarado works as a counselor at Sun Valley One-Stop, a city-run facility aimed at helping troubled youths. He has been honored by Los Angeles police for capturing a fleeing suspect and by the Korean American community for guarding a business during the 1992 riots.

But Alvarado says he ran afoul of federal law enforcement officials when he refused their request to wear a hidden recording device and return to gang life to work as an informant.

A month after his refusal, he was arrested for reentering the country illegally after deportation, an offense that carries a maximum 20-year sentence for someone with a criminal history. Alvarado had been deported on two previous occasions, but returned each time.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service freed Alvarado on bail after nine months in custody, indicating he would not be deported while he pursues legal redress.

Katz said Alvarado's wife, Marisela, a U.S. citizen, has filed a petition to have his status declared legal because of their marriage.

Katz said he also is trying to establish that Alvarado was wrongly convicted in 1990, and is hoping for passage in Congress of a general amnesty or special legislation granting Alvarado the right to remain in the United States.

"The whole process could take years," Katz said.

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