Judge orders New London man out of country after string of arrests

Jonathan A. Lopez of New London received the standard warning about his immigration status when he pleaded guilty in 2009 to a felony burglary charge stemming from a domestic violence incident.  

A Superior Court judge told him that if he isn't a citizen of the United States, his conviction may result in deportation, removal, exclusion from the country or denial of naturalization.

Lopez is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S who had emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 13. In accepting a plea offer that involved a nine-month prison sentence rather than taking his case to trial and risk being sentenced to up to 18 years if convicted, he was required to tell the judge he understood the possibility that he could be deported.

His guilty plea and a string of new arrests caught up with the now 35-year-old Lopez on March 1, when Hartford immigration Judge Michael W. Straus ruled that Lopez had been convicted of an "aggravated felony" and ordered him removed from the country. 

Agents of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement had detained Lopez last month, when he appeared in court in New London on pending charges. His removal hearing was held via teleconference between the immigration court on Main Street in Hartford and the Franklin County Jail & House of Corrections in Greenfield, Mass., where the Department of Homeland Security holds criminal detainees from Connecticut and part of Massachusetts.

Lopez, through his attorney, asked Judge Straus to let him stay in the country, or at least to let him out on bond until he is deported. But the judge had just reviewed Lopez's criminal record, which includes convictions for assault, burglary and drunken driving as well as eight pending charges, including sale of cocaine, interfering with police and domestic violence. Straus said he was concerned about Lopez's history of violence and asked Lopez to show him how he would not hurt someone if released.

"I learned my lesson," Lopez responded. "I have been a good father. I understand the laws. I understand what I did in the past has consequences and I want an opportunity to be with my children." 

He also said that a pending charge alleging he tried to strangle his son did not happen the way that police said.

Straus denied the bond request. "I don't see how he's not a danger to his community," the judge said.

The judge's decision will be final as of March 31 if Lopez doesn't appeal. His attorney, Marcy S. Levine-Sevilla, said that once the government obtains the proper travel documents, including a passport, Lopez would be put on a flight to the Dominican Republic.

"They're shackled," Levine-Sevilla said of the people the government refers to as "criminal aliens" being removed from the country via airplane. "They're still treated as prisoners until they touch down and are processed. It's my understanding that in the Dominican Republic, they process them differently than just a tourist or a citizen."

Had Lopez naturalized, or become an American citizen, he would not have been subject to deportation. His attorney said that Lopez and other green-card-carrying immigrants had no reason to worry about being deported for many years unless they committed an egregious crime, such as homicide. 

The latest statistics available show that in 2015, immigration judges ordered the removal or deportation of 88,000 noncitizens of the United States. The number of removals had decreased every year since 2011, when judges ordered 152,861 removed. Under the Trump administration, deportation of criminal immigrants and those who enter the country illegally or overstay their visas is expected to escalate.

"I feel it's un-American the way we treat people, especially legal permanent residents," said Levine-Sevilla, a young immigration attorney who, during a phone interview early this month, admitted she had cried in the hallway after the Hartford judge ordered Lopez deported.

"We went there knowing we would have an uphill battle, but it still hurts to hear an order of removal," she said.

Lopez, who worked as an appliance repair technician, will be leaving behind his three teenage children and their mother, as well as his parents and other family members, to return to a country of origin he has not seen in 22 years and where he has no family ties.

While attorneys like Levine-Sevilla are fighting to keep immigrant families together in the United States, others are supportive of Trump's stated intentions to rid the country of noncitizens who commit crimes. 

"I want Trump to do what he said he was going to do," said Wendy Hartling of Gales Ferry, whose 25-year-old daughter, Casey Chadwick, was murdered by Haitian national Jean Jacques in 2015.

Jacques had entered the country illegally in 1991. He was convicted of attempted murder in 1997, but immigration officials failed to deport him when he was released from prison 17 years later. A review of his case by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security indicated that Jacques had been detained by ICE three times, but was set free when Haiti, claiming he did not have the proper paperwork, refused to accept him into the country. Jacques now is serving a 60-year prison sentence for Chadwick's murder.

Hartling had testified at a congressional hearing last year about ICE's failed efforts to deport Jacques and had been working with Connecticut's congressional delegation to pass "Casey's Law" in order to change the way ICE handles such cases. Hartling said in a phone interview last week that since Trump took office, she hasn't heard from the Democrats who represent Connecticut in Washington except for requests for donations. She is a registered Democrat.

"With Jean Jacques, the ball was dropped," Hartling said. "I think Trump has picked up the ball. He's moving right ahead from the get-go."

Hartling has become involved with the Remembrance Project, a group that formed to bring attention to crimes committed by those who are in the country illegally. She said she met Trump at a Remembrance Project convention in Texas last fall and that it seems his intentions with respect to immigrants has been taken out of context.

"He's saying you have to be in the country legally," Hartling said. "That's just the law as we have it in this country."

Immigration officials had placed a detainer on Jacques while he was serving his original sentence, which means they wanted to be notified by the state Department of Correction prior to his release. The DOC had notified ICE, in accordance with its policy, and had turned him over to immigration officials.

Karen Martucci, a spokeswoman for the DOC, said Connecticut currently has 394 incarcerated offenders with immigration detainer requests. The number represents 2.7 percent of the state's overall prison population. The department does not get involved with immigration matters except to cooperate when prisoners who have an ICE detainer complete their sentences.

"The detainer represents a request to be notified of an upcoming release date and a request to hold that inmate beyond their end of sentence," Martucci explained in a written statement. "Our agency consistently communicates with ICE and we will hold an offender solely on an ICE detainer for up to 48 hours when they meet one or more of these three conditions: there is a prior conviction of a violent criminal felony offense, we receive a positive response from the Terrorist Screening Center, or the individual is subject to a Final Order of Deportation or removal which is accompanied by a Judicial Warrant."

k.florin@theday.com

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