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Paths to American dream converge in Immigration Court

February 17, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

The vast majority of asylum applications are denied. So are most requests for suspension of deportation, thanks to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which took away much of the discretion judges used to have in such cases.

A judge's ability to cancel deportation due to hardship, for instance, is now limited to cases in which an individual can prove that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardships" to a relative who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident. "If you have a healthy family, with kids in school, you can't get that," said Stacy Tolchin, an immigration attorney. "No one qualifies for anything anymore."

Still, the judge in Obed Silva's case seemed moved by his testimony. He questioned Obed in detail about his life as a teenage gangster. How and why, the judge asked, do young men join gangs?

"You're kind of courted into it," Obed explained. "You're praised. You're given things. You come to see them as people who care about you."

Asked to summarize his past mistakes, Obed said: "If I would be able to relive my life, it is a path I would not choose. And it's a path I would advise others not to choose."

Obed's attorney, Alan Diamante, gathered 21 witnesses on his behalf. Four managed to testify before the recess -- two university professors, a college administrator and a rehabilitation specialist at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, where Obed was treated and where he now plays in a wheelchair basketball league. All described him in glowing terms.

With the hour growing late, Judge Giattina then asked the attorney representing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security if she was prepared to waive the government's right to appeal his decision if the court ruled in Obed's favor.

"No," she said.

"Have you been given marching orders not to?" the judge asked.

"Yes," the government attorney said.

With the government unwilling to wave the white flag -- yet -- the case was continued until the next available date on the Immigration Court's impossibly crowded calendar.

And so Obed Silva will wait, with 17 more character witnesses prepared to take the stand on his behalf when his hearing resumes long after winter, spring and summer have passed into memory.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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