Mexican immigrant treated unfairly, judge says

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Robert Jay of Occupy ICE Detroit leads chants on the bullhorn while protesting an immigration crackdown in front of the ICE Detroit Field Office in Detroit on July 19.

Detroit — A Mexican citizen’s rights were violated by an immigration judge who ordered him deported from the United States, a federal judge said Friday.

Leopoldo Vargas-Molina was treated unfairly when an immigration judge failed to explain the legal process and let him voluntarily leave the country, said U.S. District Judge Judith Levy in dismissing an indictment against the Detroit resident.

Vargas-Molina, a 48-year-old carpet installer who has lived in the United States illegally for the better part of 20 years, was charged in February with illegally re-entering the country and had faced up to two years in federal prison.

The order could be a short-lived victory for Vargas-Molina and comes amid the Trump administration's plan to extend the authority of immigration officers to deport migrants without allowing them to appear before judges.

The judge's order Friday leaves Vargas-Molina with a few options. He can leave the U.S. voluntarily and try to return legally without a felony conviction on his record. Or he can pursue staying in the U.S. legally.

His lawyer declined comment Friday.

Federal court records describe the father-of-three's years-long attempt to stay in the U.S. and a series of court hearings that deprived him of his rights.

His quest to live in the U.S. dates to 1994. That's when he first came to the U.S.

In 2010, he was a passenger in a car in which a trooper found cocaine and was ticketed for driving with a suspended license. Vargas-Molina told investigators the drugs did not belong to him but he failed to appear for a later court hearing, according to court records.

The next year, he was arrested by federal agents for illegally being in the United States, and an immigration judge ordered his removal from the country. He was sent back to Mexico in April 2011, though he returned two months later.

In March 2016, he was arrested by federal agents but released from custody, and he applied for asylum.

In January, he was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and charged with illegally re-entering the country.

Vargas-Molina's victory stems from the 2011 order removing him from the U.S.

Levy, the federal judge, concluded that the 2011 removal was invalid. Vargas-Molina's due-process rights were violated by immigration judges who failed to explain the legal process and standards of voluntary departure, Levy wrote Friday.

"The (immigration judges) here did not fulfill their general obligation to explain the procedures, legal standards, and what types of affirmative evidence Vargas-Molina could have submitted to develop the record, specifically evidence of his positive qualities," Levy wrote.

One immigration judge wrongly concluded Vargas-Molina lied about being arrested in 2010 when law-enforcement officers found cocaine, Levy wrote.

"Vargas-Molina shows that the (immigration judge's) errors prejudiced him because he showed there was a reasonable probability that if the (judge) had properly developed the record, she would have granted his voluntary departure claim instead of ordering him removed," Levy wrote. "Accordingly, Vargas-Molina has shown that the entry of his removal order was fundamentally unfair."

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