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ICE merciless on lawbreakers


A man without a country: He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor on legal advice, but now this Kuwaiti refugee could face deportation



PUBLISHED JULY 29, 2007 12:33 AM

On paper, it looked like a sweet deal. Saad Mahmood Abdulaziz, of Salt Lake City, would plead guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence, and, if he met certain conditions, the case would be wiped off the books.

But immigration officials were less forgiving. Based on that plea bargain, they refused to approve the Kuwait native's application to become a lawful permanent resident last year, opening up the possibility that Abdulaziz could be deported even though he came to the U.S. legally.

Samuel Jonathan Schultz

, who was adopted at age 3 by a West Valley City woman and speaks only English, faced a similar fate. Although he also entered the country legally, he was ordered deported to his native India because of two felony car-theft convictions.

They both learned a hard truth: In addition to deporting foreigners who enter the country illegally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is kicking out legal residents who have broken the law.

And it's not just killers and rapists being targeted.

Offenders who are convicted of other crimes, such as drug possession, or any type of domestic violence, even incidents that essentially were shoving matches, can lose their right to stay in the U.S.

Abdulaziz, now 40, said a mere tiff led to the charge against him. But the exact circumstances are irrelevant as far as the law is concerned, according to several lawyers not involved in Abdulaziz's case.

"It doesn't matter what it was," attorney J. Shawn Foster of Salt Lake City said. "If it has that domestic violence designation, that foreign resident is deportable. The heartbreaking thing is that often it's a stretch of the imagination that it was domestic violence."

Lori Haley, a California-based spokeswoman for ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency has no choice but to deport when the law requires it.

And Steve Branch, ICE field officer for Utah, said his agents work to keep the country safe from offenders, "whether it's terrorists or violent criminals."

Some advocates for immigrants agree that many offenders should be sent packing. Others, though, get a raw deal, they said.

Abdulaziz was granted political asylum in fall 2000 by an immigration judge in New York after submitting evidence he had been tortured and his back broken in an Iraqi jail on the Kuwait border. He moved to Utah to be near his mother's cousin, Waleed Almamsouri, and ran into trouble in December 2000 when the two men got into an argument.

After he banned alcohol at a get-together, Abdulaziz said, his cousin walked out and he followed. The two, who describe themselves as best friends, began talking loudly and Abdulaziz said he took his cousin's arm to calm him.

A police officer driving by saw them and demanded to know what was going on. The cousins said they tried to explain, but their English was spotty and, in the end, Abdulaziz was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic violence assault.

He pleaded not guilty and the cousins showed up at a hearing in South Salt Lake Justice Court to say no crime had been committed. However, the judge said to negotiate with the prosecutor, Abdulaziz said.

Through an Arabic interpreter, the prosecutor told him the case would drag on without a plea bargain and one of them would go to jail, Abdulaziz said. Then, he said, the interpreter gave her own opinion of what he should do: Plead guilty and pay a fine to end the whole thing.

Abdulaziz did, an action he now regrets. Six years later, in October 2006, the Department of Homeland Security denied Abdulaziz's application to become a legal permanent resident because of that conviction, even though it had been expunged, and threatened to begin deportation proceedings.

"I'm sick about that," Abdulaziz said of the chain of events that led to his predicament.

Alyssa Williams, immigration program coordinator for Catholic Community Services of Utah, said immigrants and refugees often are talked into pleading guilty and have no idea that even a plea in abeyance counts as a conviction.

Many immigrants in this situation are fighting to stay in the United States by trying to withdraw their guilty pleas or by asking an immigration judge to give them another chance to stay in their adopted homeland.

Abdulaziz and Schultz are among them.

The 25-year-old


, who said his crimes were essentially joy riding, asked for asylum, saying as a Christian, and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular, he would be persecuted if returned to India. The argument failed.

Immigration Judge James Vandello - while expressing some concern about parts of the law that allow the government to deport legal residents - ruled in 2005 that the criminal convictions made Schultz ineligible for asylum. The judge noted that the only way for the Utahn to stay would be to get permission to withdraw both guilty pleas, a difficult proposition.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld Vandello's ruling in March and the deportation process resumed.

In Abdulaziz's case, attorney Hakeem Ishola argued that his client's constitutional right to legal counsel had been violated. In January, a justice court judge agreed and threw out the conviction.

Now Abdulaziz is waiting for CIS to take action on his permanent resident application and wonders whether that old mark on his record is causing a delay. Almamsouri, a refugee who came to the United States shortly before he did, already is a citizen.

Unless his application is approved, Abdulaziz is facing the loss of medical benefits in November and could still be deported. Because of his broken back, he was using a wheelchair but now can walk on his own and hopes to get even better so he can work.

Most important to Abdulaziz is the fact that once he is a lawful permanent resident, he can apply to become a citizen.

Until then, he cannot travel home to visit his family. He already has lost his father, a brother and a sister. He worries about his mother, who suffered a serious stroke a few years ago.

"I want one thing from life - see my family," Abdulaziz said.


2007 Jul 29