Federal immigration officials say it could take months to deport an MS-13 gang member who was acquitted of murder charges this week in Alexandria.
In the meantime, Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, will remain in custody at Fairfax County Jail pending a hearing by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in Arlington, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said.
Garcia-Orellana faces deportation to El Salvador as part of the federal government’s efforts to send illegal aliens back to their home countries.
He was the only defendant to testify in the trial, which resulted in the acquittal Tuesday of another gang member. Two other gang members were found guilty of murdering a pregnant 17-year-old former member.
Attorneys for Garcia-Orellana, who has been in the United States since 1998, argue that his testimony puts him at risk of assassination if he is deported. They said they will fight to get him asylum status so he can remain in the United States.
EOIR spokesman Greg Gagne said administrative judges in the Justice Department hear scores of deportation charges and appeals daily.
Mr. Gagne offered no estimate for how long it will take to remove Garcia-Orellana from the United States if a judge allows deportation.
If the judge rules against deportation, Garcia-Orellana would be a free man.
“Typically, these things tend to be measured in months from beginning to end,” Mr. Gagne said.
Immigration authorities deported 91,921 aliens on criminal and noncriminal charges in 1999, said Mike Keegan, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer.
That figure rose to 161,501 last year — a 75 percent increase, he said.
“Every year it has increased,” Mr. Keegan said. “Now that we have two [immigration] agencies combined, we’re a lot stronger. We have a lot more methods of investigating and tracking people down.”
ICE was created in March 2003 by the merger of the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Protective Service.
From Jan. 1 to March 31, ICE authorities deported 63,706 aliens on criminal and noncriminal charges. During that period, 1,066 aliens were deported from the District, Virginia and Maryland.
A federal jury last week acquitted Garcia-Orellana and Denis Rivera, who prosecutors said masterminded Brenda Paz’s murder.
Miss Paz was to have testified at another murder trial for Rivera, who was in prison at the time of her death.
Rivera also faces deportation, but would not be subject to a hearing until he completes the 57 months remaining of his sentence.
The jury convicted two MS-13 members in the July 2003 stabbing death of Miss Paz, who was killed for speaking to authorities about her former gang.
Ismael J. Cisneros, 26, and Oscar A. Grande, 22, face the death penalty during the sentencing phase of the trial, which begins today.
Garcia-Orellana testified that he witnessed Cisneros and Grande kill Miss Paz.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is the largest and most violent gang in Northern Virginia.
Arlo Wagner contributed to this report.