Sunday, June 26, 2011

Henrico woman faces deportation (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Henrico woman faces deportation

Published: June 26, 2011

The plight of a Henrico County woman, a legal immigrant facing deportation to a country she hasn't seen since she was 7, is testing new federal guidelines on enforcing immigration law.

Karinna Somoza, 42, of Glen Allen is the mother of three American children and has been married to an American citizen for more than 20 years. She came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 7 and to Chesterfield County two years later. Her father and sister still live in Chesterfield.

Yet, Somoza is facing deportation to El Salvador as early as this week because she shoplifted $50 in merchandise from a Henrico department store six years ago.

Her sentence then — two years with all but three months suspended — classifies her now as an aggravated felon, subject to deportation under a 1996 federal law that prevents immigration judges from intervening.

"It's a sad situation," said her sister, Leslie Somoza. "They're not even going to look at the fact there are three children involved."

But federal immigration officials do have discretion to consider Somoza's children and other factors, under guidelines on prosecutorial discretion released less than two weeks ago by the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Director John Morton, in a memorandum issued June 17, directs all ICE officers, agents and attorneys to consider a person's length of stay as a legal immigrant, "particularly if the alien came to the United States as a young child."

They also are supposed to consider the person's family relationships and ties to the community here, as well as ties to the home country and conditions there.

Given the limited resources to enforce U.S. immigration law, the agency "must regularly exercise 'prosecutorial discretion' if it is to prioritize its efforts," Morton said.

Those priorities, he said, are "promotion of national security, border security, public safety and the integrity of the immigration system."

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ICE spokeswoman Cori W. Bassett said Friday that Morton's memorandum does not change the department's decision to deport Somoza. She said it clearly states that "the exercise of discretion is clearly inappropriate in cases involving threats to public safety."

Bassett said Somoza's shoplifting conviction makes her an aggravated felon "eliminating the possibility of discretionary relief from removal as well as the possibility of naturalization."

The department's priorities are "first and foremost criminal offenders and national security threats," the spokeswoman said, adding that Somoza's conviction makes her a criminal offender.

None of the department's priorities would be advanced by deporting Somoza, said Jim Tom Haynes, her Washington immigration attorney.

Haynes said the memo had two purposes: "The first is to make sure that injustice is not done. The second is to work smart and use their resources efficiently. I don't see how they're accomplishing either goal here."

"I don't see ICE using any common sense or compassion," he said.

Haynes has experience in fighting these kinds of battles, sparked by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The law greatly broadened the government's power to detain and deport legal residents for crimes committed here.

But the law defines even misdemeanors as aggravated felonies if they carry a sentence of a year or more, even if the entire sentence is suspended.

This month, Haynes savored a final victory with a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals to terminate deportation proceedings against a Northern Virginia woman whose detention seven years ago ignited a political backlash.

The woman, Mi-Choong O'Brien, was manacled, jailed and marked for deportation to South Korea, even though she had been married for 25 years to a U.S. citizen and had four children, all but one born here.

Her crime was stealing from an employer. She had served a month of her three-year sentence for embezzlement and repaid her employer. She was detained by ICE agents at a meeting with her probation officer and held at regional jails across Virginia.

O'Brien's deportation was deferred in 2004 after her story became public and a Virginia congressman intervened on her behalf. Seven years later, the government finally terminated all proceedings against her.

* * * * *

In Somoza's case, she's paying a dear price for a crime she didn't know she was committing — not only for shoplifting a bra and other clothing from a Kohl's store in 2005.

Two years earlier, she was convicted of petit larceny for using her identification to pawn two musical instruments that her husband said he had been given by his father. Her husband, Eric J. Singleton, had stolen them from his father, Royal, then a retired music teacher in the Richmond school system and a performer in local symphonies.

Singleton, who was addicted to heroin then, said he never told his wife he had taken the flute and clarinet. Nor did he tell her he had stolen a valuable oboe from his father and sold it for $200.

After his father called police, they discovered the pawned instruments under her identification. Singleton served jail time and underwent drug rehabilitation.

His wife was not jailed but was put on probation. She was done with probation two years later, but those two earlier petit larceny convictions made her a three-time offender when she was convicted of shoplifting.

That resulted in a sentence that ultimately landed her in indefinite detention last fall after an altercation with a neighbor.

"I feel like it's my fault," her husband, Eric, said recently. "I just feel so bad. I've had my problems. I'm a recovering addict. I did what I did."

"She's being deported for something she didn't do," he said.

Haynes is trying to prevent that from happening. Last week, he asked ICE officials to reconsider their decisions not to stop or delay the deportation process, especially in light of the guidance issued by Morton.

In a request to ICE attorneys Monday, he said Somoza has lived as a legal permanent resident in the U.S. for almost 35 years. Her entire family is here, not in El Salvador or Honduras, where her mother was born.

"It mentions ties to the home country and conditions in El Salvador," Haynes said of the Morton memo. "She has absolutely no one in El Salvador and the conditions there are horrific. She will have no protection and no support."

Her father, Oscar Somoza, is fearful of what would await his daughter in El Salvador, which she hasn't seen since leaving as a child.

"My country's not safe right now," he said at his home in Chester. "Nobody's going to be waiting for her."

At home in Glen Allen, however, Somoza's three daughters — Kalah, 16; Erin, 12; and Maya, 9 — have been waiting for their mother since Halloween. That was the day she was detained. It also was Maya's 9th birthday.

"In the past five months, I've learned to do so many things on my own," Maya wrote an immigration judge, "but it's always nice (to) have my caring mommy here with me."

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