Federal immigration agents were prepared to arrest an illegal immigrant and registered sex offender days before the November elections, but they were ordered by Washington to hold off after officials warned of "significant interest" from Congress and news organizations because the suspect was a volunteer intern for Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, according to internal agency documents provided to Congress.
The Homeland Security Department said last month, when The Associated Press first disclosed the delayed arrest of Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta, that AP's report was "categorically false."
Sanchez, 18, was an immigrant from Peru who has overstayed a visitor's visa that allowed him to enter the United States. He eventually was arrested at his home in New Jersey on Dec. 6. He has since been released from an immigration jail and is facing deportation. Sanchez has declined to speak to AP.
After the AP story, which cited an unnamed U.S. official involved in the case, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and six other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Obama administration for details about the incident.
According to those documents, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Newark had arranged to arrest Sanchez at the local prosecutor's office on Oct. 25. That was less than two weeks before the election.
Noting that Sanchez was a volunteer in Mr. Menendez's Senate office, ICE officials in New Jersey advised that the arrest "had the possibility of garnering significant congressional and media interest" and were "advised to postpone the arrest" until officials in Washington gave approval. The documents describe a conference call between officials in Washington and New Jersey to "determine a way forward, given the potential sensitivities surrounding the case."
The senators, in a letter to the Homeland Security Department, said the agency documents showed that Sanchez's arrest "was delayed by six weeks," as AP had reported.
In a letter Monday, Assistant DHS Secretary Nelson Peacock said an allegation that the government delayed Mr. Sanchez's arrest "for political purposes" was categorically false.
Mr. Menendez, who advocates aggressively for pro-immigration policies, was re-elected Nov. 6 with 58 percent of the vote.
According to police records, Sanchez was 15 when he was arrested on a charge of aggravated sexual assault in 2009. The records show he was accused of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy at least eight times and sentenced to two years' probation and required to register as a sex offender. The AP is not reporting the boy's relationship to Sanchez to avoid identifying a victim.
The agency documents show that Sanchez failed to update his sex offender registration, and local prosecutors considered arresting him for that. During the same time, immigration officials learned that Sanchez had applied for the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which would have allowed him to stay in the country and legally work for two years. He did not disclose his arrest or status as a sex offender on the application and eventually was denied, according to the documents.