Friday, October 10, 2008

Illegal immigrant fearful for his life grateful to stay in U.S. ( San Antonio Express-News)

Illegal immigrant fearful for his life grateful to stay in U.S.

San Antonio Express-News
Oct. 9, 2008, 7:24PM

To many immigrants facing deportation, government agents and prosecutors can seem like callous automatons who care little about the people they kick out of the country.

Don't count Alexis "Alex" Nguitte-Bekongo among them.

Were it not for the abundant consideration that immigration officials in San Antonio gave to his case, reversing an imminent deportation, the émigré from Central African Republic said he would have been dispatched to certain death back home.

Nguitte-Bekongo, who had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for two months, was released Tuesday, rejoining his wife and four children. It was an unexpectedly joyous occasion for the family on the very day that Nguitte-Bekongo, 44, had been scheduled to be deported.

"It's just an indescribable feeling," he said minutes after being freed. "I can't tell you how good it feels to hold my children again."

As late as last week, the government rejected Nguitte-Bekongo's last appeal. But his lawyer, veteran immigration law specialist Teresa Coles-Dávila, implored prosecutors to take another look.

Though Nguitte-Bekongo won't get another chance to seek political asylum after his application and appeal were denied years ago, the government agreed to halt his deportation so he could re-apply for permanent residence through his American wife, Jamie.

Nina Pruneda, spokeswoman for ICE in San Antonio, said agency prosecutors decided to flex their discretionary muscle.

Prosecutors noted that each case is unique and they considered "special circumstances" regarding Nguitte-Bekongo, said Pruneda, declining to provide details.

But even getting to this point seems like a miracle given that just a few days ago, the government was determined to ship Nguitte-Bekongo out of the country, Coles-Dávila said.

Nguitte-Bekongo, who first entered the country 15 years ago at the invitation of the U.S. military for a training program at Fort Sam Houston, said returning to Central African Republic would get him killed.

His former military superiors declared him a deserter, and the army chief of staff at the time is now the country's president.

That fact seemed to convince prosecutors to give Nguitte-Bekongo another chance to try to stay here.

"I really have to give credit where credit is due," Coles-Dávila said. "We go to battle with Homeland Security all the time, but on this one they listened and reconsidered when they didn't have to do it."

News of the government's change of heart quickly spread in the city's small, close-knit African émigré community.

Elijah Akhahenda, volunteer pastor at All Nations Praise and Worship Center, which helps refugees assimilate to U.S. culture, or7:18pmganized a collection that provided $1,300 to help Nguitte-Bekongo's family while he was detained.

Nguitte-Bekongo's wife and children ages 1 to 7, one just diagnosed with autism depended on him, a veteran nursing home worker, as the sole family breadwinner. Unable to pay rent and bills, mother and children were evicted last month and moved in with Nguitte-Bekongo's parents.

Immigration agents arrested Nguitte-Bekongo in August in a roundup of immigrants who had been given final deportation orders but never left.

After losing his bid for asylum, he thought he retained legal status through his wife's sponsorship, but his application was never filed due to a mishap with the lawyer handling the case at the time.

Now all he wants is to get his life back. Money's tight, so regaining his nursing home job would be a good start, he said.

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