Saturday, June 4, 2005

Federal officials acknowledged yesterday they failed in 1998 to deport an illegal alien who was recently acquitted of murder in an MS-13 gang trial, but said that the alien will now be immediately deported or charged with a felony.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told The Washington Times that Oscar Garcia-Orellana, who is in jail awaiting a deportation hearing in Virginia, had previously been ordered deported to El Salvador by an immigration judge in Harlingen, Texas.

ICE officials are now investigating whether Garcia-Orellana, who was using a different name in 1998, either ducked the deportation order and remained in the United States illegally for seven years or returned to El Salvador, then re-entered the country illegally.

Mike Keegan, an ICE officer, said Garcia-Orellana likely would not have slipped through the cracks had recent improvements to immigration enforcement been in place at the time. Officials could not say how Garcia-Orellana eluded immigration officials, though Mr. Keegan suspects he never showed up for the plane ride to El Salvador.

Among the recent improvements are the creation of the Office of Homeland Security. The office created ICE in March 2003 by merging the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Protective Service.

“We’re a lot stricter now,” Mr. Keegan said.

Agency officials estimate roughly 500,000 fugitive illegals have avoided deportation and are hiding in the United States.

Garcia-Orellana’s attorney, Alex Levay, said yesterday he is annoyed with federal authorities for not telling him about the 1998 ordeal, but noted he hasn’t confirmed the previous deportation order.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “Certainly no one from immigration led me to believe or had any information of a prior deportation order. I’m hearing this now from jail officials.”

Mr. Levay is further upset about a revelation yesterday that prosecutors have charged Garcia-Orellana with being an illegal alien in possession of ammunition. In charges brought forth in Fairfax, prosecutors said when they searched Garcia-Orellana’s apartment in February 2004, they found a shotgun shell and a few bullets, Mr. Levay said. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the ammunition charges.

In addition, ICE officials are investigating records to determine whether Garcia-Orellana, using the name Jose Roberto Ayala-Ramos, adhered to the deportation order.

If he did not follow the 1998 order, Garcia-Orellana, 32, will be deported within a couple of weeks and without an immigration hearing because he “already had his day in court,” Mr. Keegan said.

Immigration officials will have to battle with prosecutors over whether to deport Garcia-Orellana immediately or wait for the ammunition charges to be heard at trial. He is being held in jail.

If Garcia-Orellana followed the order, then returned to the United States, he will face a felony charge of re-entry after deportation, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. If found guilty, Garcia-Orellana would be deported after completing the sentence.

Mr. Levay argues that his client’s testimony against MS-13 gang members puts him at risk of assassination if he is deported, and previously said he would fight to get Garcia-Orellana asylum status so he can remain in the United States.

Garcia-Orellana has previous criminal convictions for unauthorized use of a vehicle and for manufacturing or sale of a controlled substance.

ICE officials have said that 30 percent of illegal aliens ordered to show up for immigration proceedings fail to appear. Of those who do appear, about 85 percent become fugitives if a judge orders them to be deported. ICE spokesman Manny Van Pelt recently said about 465,000 fugitive illegals are in the United States and such figures highlight the challenge of immigration enforcement. Immigration authorities deported 161,501 aliens on criminal and noncriminal charges last year and 63,706 aliens during the first three months of this year.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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