By Gregory B. Hladky
11:47 AM EST, February 26, 2013
Josemaria Islas has been targeted by federal immigration authorities as "a priority for removal" under a deportation program that is supposed to focus on stone-cold criminals like drug dealers, rapists and murderers.
Islas, an undocumented immigrant living in New Haven with his sister, nephews and brother, isn't any of those things.
His most serious "crime" in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents is that he keeps on sneaking into the United States to find work.
Last week, despite loud protests from Connecticut activists and his family and a civil disobedience action that led to four arrests, a federal judge in Hartford ordered Islas be deported back to Mexico. Reform activists in this state say his case has become a symbol of what's wrong with America's dysfunctional immigration policies, a system that's now under fire from both Democrats and Republicans.
According to ICE, Islas tried four times in August and September 2005 to find a way into the U.S.A. On each occasion, he was caught and sent back across the border.
But on his fifth attempt, Islas made it and found his way to Connecticut and got a job at a Hamden factory. He was on his lunch break last June when he was picked up by local cops looking for suspects in an attempted robbery. Immigration activists say the only description police had was of "a short, brown man," which Islas happens to be.
He was jailed for four months. His advocates insist he had nothing to do with the alleged crime, and ended up taking a plea bargain that scaled the charges back to disorderly conduct simply to get out from behind bars.
"The judge was going to let him go," explains David Amdur, a volunteer with Unidad Latina en Accion, a New Haven-based group working to help Islas in his fight with immigration authorities.
As part of his plea bargain, Islas was also granted accelerated rehabilitation, commonly known as "AR." That's a program in Connecticut that allows all charges to be wiped off a defendant's record if he or she completes required probation, and AR is never used in the case of people charged with serious crimes. Now that he's finished probation, Islas doesn't technically have any criminal record.
Despite those facts, Connecticut judicial marshals called immigration officials because Islas was on a computerized list put out under the federal Secure Communities (or S-Comm) program.
President Obama's administration says the program is only supposed to be used to deport hardened and dangerous criminals. Critics insist that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who've committed no major crimes have been sent out of the U.S. under S-Comm.
S-Comm has become so controversial that Connecticut officials ordered special reviews of any ICE requests for undocumented immigrants being held in state prisons. Those reviews were supposed to make certain that only people with serious felony records would be turned over for deportation.
Islas apparently fell right through a loophole in that state policy. He was being held by judicial marshals and wasn't in the state corrections system.
ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein insists his agency "has adopted common-sense policies nationwide that ensure our immigration laws are enforced in a way that best enhances public safety, border security and the integrity of the immigration system."
As for Islas not being convicted of any felony, Feinstein noted that he "was originally charged with a serious criminal offense of conspiracy to commit robbery." In a statement issued last week, Feinstein acknowledges that Islas was granted accelerated rehabilitation, but fails to mention that his completion of that probation means he's got no criminal record in this state.
Of course, ICE also targets anyone who "repeatedly violated immigration laws."
Amdur admits Islas broke U.S. immigration laws by repeatedly trying to get across the border. "But that is not a criminal violation," Amdur points out. "That's a civil violation of the immigration laws."
And so his case has become a rallying cry for immigration reform advocates in Connecticut. Four people were arrested last week for trying to block the doorway to the federal building where a judge was ordering Islas to be deported.
Gregory Williams, a Yale Divinity School student who was one of those arrested, says he and the others charged with federal disorderly conduct aren't planning to pay the $175 fines they now face.
"We're going to refuse to pay the fine," says Williams. He says a court trial will offer another opportunity to continue the protest against Islas' deportation. "We want to put as much public pressure as we can on ICE and the courts to reconsider [Islas'] deportation order," Williams says.
Islas, 34, now has 30 days to appeal his deportation ruling and no date for sending him back to Mexico has been set. ICE lawyers could decide to use "prosecutorial discretion" and not push for deportation in this case, says Megan Fountain, of Unidad Latino en Accion.
John Lugo, one of the organizers of the protest action, says various reform groups will be helping Islas with his appeal, hoping to "put more political pressure" on federal politicians to reform the immigration system.
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