Saturday, May 15, 2010

Student's Arrest Tests Immigration Policy

The New York Times

May 14, 2010

Student’s Arrest Tests Immigration Policy


ATLANTA — Jessica Colotl, a 21-year-old college student and illegal Mexican immigrant at the center of a contentious immigration case, surrendered to a Georgia sheriff on Friday but continued to deny wrongdoing.

Ms. Colotl was arrested in March for driving without a license and could face deportation next year. On Wednesday the sheriff filed a felony charge against her for providing a false address to the police.

The case has become a flash point in the national debate over whether federal immigration laws should be enforced by local and state officials. And like Arizona’s tough new immigration law, it has highlighted a rift between the federal government and local politicians over how illegal immigrants should be detected and prosecuted.

“I never thought that I’d be caught up in this messed-up system,” Ms. Colotl said Friday at a news conference after being released on $2,500 bail. “I was treated like a criminal, like a threat to the nation.”

Civil rights groups say Ms. Colotl should be spared deportation because she was brought to the United States without legal documents by her parents at age 11. They also note that she has excelled academically and was discovered to be here illegally only after a routine traffic violation.

Supporters of immigration laws and the sheriff’s office in Cobb County say she violated state law, misled the police about her address and should not receive special treatment for her age or education.

Ms. Colotl was pulled over March 29 by a campus officer at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, where she is two semesters from graduation, for “impeding the flow of traffic.” After she presented the officer an expired Mexican passport instead of a valid driver’s license, she was arrested and taken to a county jail, where she acknowledged being an illegal immigrant.

On May 5, she was transferred to the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama to await deportation to Mexico.

But after protests by Latino groups, demonstrations at the Georgia Capitol by her sorority sisters and a letter of support from the university’s president, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency granted a one-year deferral on her deportation so she could finish college. The “deferred action” means she could still be deported, but will be allowed to apply for an extension next year.

Her ultimate goal, Ms. Colotl said at the news conference, is that proposed legislation called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — known as the Dream Act — will become law, providing students without legal immigration status a path to become legal.

She and her lawyer declined to discuss the immigration status of her parents.

In Georgia, the case has become intensely political. Ms. Colotl received in-state tuition, substantially reducing her cost of attending Kennesaw State. The university will charge her out-of-state rates in the future, but Republican politicians are calling for new legislation to make attendance more expensive, or impossible, for illegal immigrants.

One Republican candidate for governor, Eric Johnson, has said that if elected he will mandate that all college applicants demonstrate their citizenship. The chancellor of the state university system says that would be prohibitively expensive, costing $1.5 million, for roughly 300,000 students.

Under a program by the Department of Homeland Security, known as 287(g), local sheriffs are permitted to handle federal immigration law enforcement. The Cobb County sheriff’s office was the first in Georgia and one of the first in the United States to apply for the program. Immigration is a hot topic in the largely conservative county, where Hispanics make up 11 percent of the population, census figures show.

Mary Bauer, the legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is assisting in Ms. Colotl’s defense, said Cobb County had a history of using federal laws designed to detect dangerous criminals for arresting illegal immigrants for minor offenses. A review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that from 2007 to 2009, the main crime for which immigration detainees were arrested in the county was traffic offenses.

“This is a civil rights disaster,” said Ms. Bauer, who called the county’s application of the law “mean-spirited and very probably illegal.”

“We call on the Obama administration to end 287(g),” she said.

Supporters of strict immigration legislation say Ms. Colotl’s case was handled legally.

The sheriff, Neil Warren, said Ms. Colotl provided a false address to the police, a felony charge. Her lawyers say that she provided the address of the residence where she used to live and to where her car insurance is registered, and that she also provided her current address.

No exception should be made, however admirable the offender, said Phil Kent, a spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, a national group opposed to illegal immigration.

“Ironically, she says she wants to go on to law school, but she’s undermining the law,” Mr. Kent said. “What’s the point of educating an illegal immigrant in a system where she can’t hold a job legally or get a driver’s license?”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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