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Court says gangster not entitled to refugee status

December 29, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Los Angeles gang member, a legal immigrant from El Salvador who was ordered deported because of several felony convictions, is not entitled to humanitarian refugee status because of fears that he will be targeted by rivals in his home country.

Jean Pierre Arteaga, who came to the U.S. with his parents at age 4, argued that the gang tattoos that cover much of his body would mark him for persecution and possibly torture by rival gang members while he was temporarily detained by authorities in El Salvador. He said that the tattoos entitled him to "special group" status.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his argument, saying Arteaga could provide no evidence of his claims. Earlier, he unsuccessfully pleaded his case before an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals.

The high court's ruling was cheered by immigration officials.

"Asylum is for people who cry out for sympathy from the world community," said William Odencrantz, director of field legal operations for the Los Angeles office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It's not intended to provide refuge for criminals and deviants who seek to harm society. It's a seminal ruling on this issue."

Arteaga came into federal custody in March 2005 after he was flagged for possible deportation while serving time at Centinela State Prison in Imperial County. He had been convicted of possession of methamphetamine, possession of a concealed weapon and unlawful taking of a vehicle.

Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen S. Trott, who wrote the court's opinion, said lawmakers never intended asylum statutes to protect violent criminals.

"We cannot conclude that Congress, in offering refugee protection for individuals facing potential persecution through social group status, intended to include violent street gangs who assault people and who traffic in drugs and commit theft," Trott wrote.

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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