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Face of ‘Dreamers’ takes deportation fight to court

9 Jun

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Tristan Smith

Atlanta (CNN) Jessica Colotl became a poster child for immigrant rights activists when a traffic violation on her college campus landed her behind bars.

Her battle to fight deportation after her 2010 arrest made her a face of the national movement aimed at helping Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

On Thursday, Colotl was back in court, fighting the Trump administration.

Why? Officials recently denied her renewal application for the program that gives Dreamers work permits and temporarily shields them from deportation.

The case, activists say, serves as a troubling reminder that three quarters of a million so-called Dreamers who have come to rely on the program could be at risk.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I’m trying to stay strong, because I know this means a lot for so many people,” Colotl told reporters outside an Atlanta federal courthouse on Thursday.

Renewal denied

Twice, Colotl says, officials accepted her into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Obama administration created in 2012.

Last month, officials told Colotl, 28, that her application to renew her status had been denied.

Immigration officials have said that’s because Colotl admitted guilt to a 2011 charge of making a false statement to law enforcement. Colotl’s attorneys say that’s not true, arguing that the Trump administration is trying to make an example out of Colotl. Officials, they say, made a sudden and arbitrary decision.

On Thursday they asked a judge to order officials to temporarily reinstate her protection under the program while they reconsider Colotl’s application.

Attorneys for the government countered that the program gives officials discretion to decide on cases as they see fit.

U.S. District Judge Mark H. Cohen said he would rule on the matter next week.

He repeatedly questioned government attorneys Thursday about whether appropriate procedures had been followed.

Attorney: ‘Every citizen in America should be concerned’

Last month, an immigration spokesman told CNN that about 1,500 DACA recipients had lost their status since the program began.

“Jessica Colotl, an unlawfully present Mexican national, admitted guilt to a felony charge in August 2011 of making a false statement to law enforcement. … Under federal law her guilty plea is considered a felony conviction for immigration purposes,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement said last month.

But Colotl’s attorneys contended there was never a guilty plea. Colotl completed a pretrial diversion program and was never charged, they said.

Government attorneys admitted in court Thursday that Colotl hadn’t pleaded guilty. But they also argued that doesn’t matter, saying that officials have the discretion to decide who to accept into the program.

Colotl’s lawyers say that argument shows the case has even broader implications.

“The reality is that every citizen in America should be concerned if the government sets up a standard for you to comply with, and then can — whenever they want to — decide you don’t comply with that, and not give you a chance to respond to that,’ ” attorney Charles Kuck said outside the courthouse on Thursday. “That offends, I think, everyone’s sense of due process.”

A central figure

Colotl was born in Mexico and was brought to the United States by her parents when she was 11 years old.

She was 21 when police stopped her on the campus of Kennesaw State University, north of Atlanta, for a traffic violation. When she couldn’t produce a valid driver’s license, she was turned over to immigration authorities, who put her in an Alabama detention center for 37 days.

Her case made headlines and her experience made her a central figure for immigration activists. She told reporters Thursday that she was shocked to learn she’d been kicked out of the DACA program. “I was devastated by it, because I knew that it would destroy my life, and it did that,” she said. “I went in a matter of seconds from having a normal life to basically being paralyzed.”

Trump’s plans for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are unclear.

The President decried the program on the campaign trail, but struck a softer tone once he took office.

To date, the program remains in place. And officials have repeatedly stressed that they’re not targeting Dreamers for deportation.

Colotl said she felt hopeful after Thursday’s court proceedings. “I just want to go back to having a normal life, go back to having a job, driving and doing the daily things I normally do,” she said.

Becoming the face of such a controversial issue brings a lot of pressure, she said.

“But you know what? At the end of the day, there are many others like myself,” she said. “And if not me, it’s going to be someone else out there.”