- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pardoned an illegal immigrant Wednesday for past driving offenses, hoping his decision will help thwart Homeland Security agents’ attempts to deport the woman.

Liliana Cruz Mendez’s case has taken on national significance as immigrant rights groups rally to her cause. Despite her unauthorized status, she has been a productive member of the Northern Virginia community and should be exempted from deportation, activists say.

Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, said his pardon should bolster those calls.

“Tearing this family apart will not make our commonwealth or our country safer,” the governor said in a statement. “If President Trump and his administration are serious about making our nation safer, they will release Ms. Mendez, focus their immigration enforcement efforts on legitimate threats to our public safety and get behind the comprehensive immigration reform our nation needs.”

Ms. Mendez has been defying a 2006 deportation order, which immigration officials said makes her a legitimate target for removal to her home country of El Salvador.

The 30-year-old mother of two was detained last week when she showed up for a regular check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

She went through similar check-ins under President Obama and was released both times, presumably because she fell short of the priorities Mr. Obama had set for deportation targets in his administration.

Her backers say Ms. Mendez’s only criminal history stems from a 2013 traffic stop for a broken taillight. She was driving without a license at the time, making her guilty of a misdemeanor.

She pleaded guilty to both offenses in 2014, paid $130 in fines and was given a year’s worth of unsupervised probation.

Ms. Mendez’s two children, ages 10 and 4, are U.S. citizens, and her husband has work authorization suggesting at least some tentative legal status. Activists said that should be enough to earn her leniency.

“It’s clear under the law that they have discretion to grant her request and allow Liliana to remain with her family,” said Nick Katz, senior manager for legal services at CASA, an advocacy group for the immigrant community. “This is a textbook example for why we have discretion based on humanitarian concerns.”

But ICE says Ms. Mendez has been in the country illegally for more than a decade and has been under threat of deportation the entire time.

“ICE took Ms. Cruz Mendez into custody based on a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge in April 2006,” said agency spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell.

The spokeswoman signaled that Mr. McAuliffe’s pardon wouldn’t affect the case.

“Even without any criminal convictions, she is still subject to removal from the United States based on that final order of removal,” Ms. Cutrell said.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said Ms. Mendez should be deported.

“It is a myth that immigration law is being used to split families,” he said. “Just because an illegal alien is deported does not mean they can’t take their children with them.”

The case is an example of the seismic shift in approach to immigration enforcement between the Obama administration and the Trump administration.

Mr. Obama carved more than 80 percent of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of serious danger of deportation, ordering agents to focus only on serious criminals, people caught in the act of crossing the border and people who were recently ordered deported by an immigration judge.

Those ordered deported before 2014 were not considered priorities.

The Trump administration says it is still prioritizing criminals but will no longer give a pass to other illegal immigrants whom enforcement agents encounter — particularly those who are defying deportation orders.

“This country spent billions of dollars a year on border control, making sure these folks get due process. When a federal judge makes a decision, issues an order, that order needs to mean something,” said Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who was briefing reporters last week.

While apprehensions at the border are down more than 70 percent under Mr. Trump, ICE’s arrests in the interior are up 38 percent, according to the latest statistics.

Three-quarters of those arrested by ICE are criminals, the agency said. That is down from 92 percent under Mr. Obama in 2016. All told, ICE nabbed 30,500 immigrants with criminal records and another 10,800 without criminal records during Mr. Trump’s first 100 days.

“We are a law enforcement agency, and that’s what we’re going to do — we’re going to enforce the laws on the books,” Mr. Homan said. “Even though the executive orders have expanded the aperture of who we’re arresting, if you look at the numbers, the men and women of ICE are still prioritizing those cases in a way that makes sense.”

Immigrant rights activists cast doubt on the numbers, saying most of those classified as convicts by the Trump administration were guilty of traffic-related offenses or immigration crimes. The activists said those convictions shouldn’t come with penalties of deportation.

“We believe that ICE is misleading the public in a deliberate attempt to cover up the fact that their roundups and arrests of ordinary, hardworking immigrants greatly outnumber their arrests of serious criminals,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.

His group said Ms. Mendez’s case is just the latest in a series of undeserving deportations. Others include a 22-year-old college student in California who was preparing to apply for Mr. Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty for Dreamers, but who hadn’t accumulated the money for the application, and a North Carolina woman who had her asylum application denied in 2014 but who was granted repeated stays of deportation by the Obama administration.

CASA, meanwhile, will stage a rally Thursday in Baltimore calling for the release of Jesus Peraza, a father of two. CASA said the man has no criminal record yet was arrested by ICE officers a block from his child’s school.

“These type of arrests are sending a chill throughout the community,” said Elizabeth Alex, CASA’s director for the Baltimore area.

WBAL-TV reported that Mr. Peraza was deported a decade ago but sneaked back into the country.

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