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Immigrants' minor offenses can ruin hope for deportation waiver

A protest at a North Carolina legislative hearing by a man brought here at age 7 could result in his expulsion despite a new U.S. policy.

August 19, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Uriel Alberto and his son, Julian. Alberto was brought to the U.S. at age 7 and would qualify for a deportation deferral under President Obama's new policy for young illegal immigrants, but a misdemeanor could get him deported.
Uriel Alberto and his son, Julian. Alberto was brought to the U.S. at age… (Courtesy of Uriel Alberto )

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Uriel Alberto would seem to be a strong candidate for the recent federal policy change that temporarily protects certain young, undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Thousands of applicants lined up last week to file forms under the new policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It offers a two-year waiver from deportation to immigrants aged 30 and younger who were brought to the U.S. by their parents before age 16.

Alberto, 25, moved to the U.S. illegally from Mexico with his immigrant parents at age 7. He graduated from a U.S. high school — another requirement of the new policy — where he was a track standout. He now works as a paralegal in North Carolina.

But like many young immigrants who would otherwise qualify, Alberto faces imminent deportation because of nonviolent scrapes with the law. The latest was in February after he was charged with disorderly conduct for protesting immigration legislation during a hearing at the North Carolina Legislature.

Alberto's subsequent conviction and 15-day jail stay triggered a deportation detainer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Given previous convictions — one, involving drinking and driving, was overturned on appeal Thursday — Alberto's chances of qualifying for the deferred action program seem slim.

The policy excludes anyone "convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense or three or more misdemeanor offenses."

There are no reliable estimates for the number of otherwise eligible young immigrants with misdemeanor records, according to representatives from ICE and the Migration Policy Institute, which tracks immigration issues. But many potential deferred-action applicants, like Alberto, are now struggling to remove or reduce minor convictions, immigration advocates say.

Alberto is challenging the disorderly conduct conviction in state court and the deportation detainer in federal immigration court. Two lawyers are working pro bono on the cases as Alberto continues to speak out against the immigration policies he was protesting when arrested.

"I know it's a long shot," Alberto said as he wolfed down a sausage biscuit at a fast-food restaurant on his way to work one recent morning. "But whoever really looks at my case will see, sure, I have some blemishes, but they are greatly outweighed my by merits and my accomplishments."

Alberto's immigration lawyer, Helen Parsonage, said, "Uriel has a lot going for him. He's intelligent, educated, a college athlete. He has made a tremendous contribution to this country."

Cynthia Martinez, 21, who was arrested along with Alberto at the legislative protest, said he could have easily avoided the deportation detainer by remaining silent.

"It took a lot of courage for him to stand up and be heard," said Martinez, who does not face deportation for her protest arrest.

**

The deferred-action policy guarantees that qualified immigrants will not be deported for two years, an exclusion that is renewable. They will also be eligible to apply for work permits, Social Security cards and driver's licenses.

Citizenship and Immigration Services says as many as 1.2 million immigrants may qualify.

A spokesman for ICE said the agency had determined that, based on Alberto's misdemeanor record, he does not now qualify. But if Alberto provided evidence of a change in his record, such as dismissals of misdemeanor convictions, the agency would take that into account. The dismissal of the 2008 case involving drinking and driving improves Alberto's chances.

Parsonage, the immigration lawyer, said she discovered that Alberto had pleaded guilty in 2008, on the advice of his lawyer at the time, even though his blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit. The case was dismissed Thursday.

Alberto and two other undocumented immigrants affiliated with an immigrant rights group called NC Dream Team interrupted a legislative hearing in February on measures to tighten restrictions on illegal immigrants.

"My name is Uriel Alberto," he told the hearing. "I am undocumented and unafraid and unashamed. I refuse to be bullied or intimidated by this committee. I choose to empower my community."

Alberto said he complied with security officers' orders to leave the hearing and did not resist arrest. He pleaded guilty under a so-called Alford plea, in which he maintained his innocence but conceded that prosecutors had evidence to convict him. His lawyer, Scott Holmes, appealed and Alberto is awaiting a hearing.

Cynthia Martinez and the one other protester entered a first-time offender program and will have their charges dismissed if they perform community service and stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, Alberto's supporters have staged rallies on his behalf and donated $5,000 for his bond.

Alberto jokes about his slight Southern accent. He says he never returned to Mexico after leaving at age 7.

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