SEATTLE (AP) — A former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney pleaded guilty Friday after prosecutors said he forged a document to make it look like a Mexican citizen who wanted to stay in the U.S. was not eligible to do so.
Jonathan M. Love pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of depriving the rights of Ignacio Lanuza. His plea agreement with federal prosecutors requires him to pay Lanuza up to $12,000 in restitution and bars Love from practicing law for 10 years.
Lanuza acknowledged that he was in the country illegally but contended he was eligible for an exception because he was married to an American citizen and had been in the country for more than 10 consecutive years.
The plea agreement said Love took Lanuza's case in 2009 and forged the document making it look like Lanuza had left the country around 2000 and did not meet the eligibility requirement. His motive remains unclear and his lawyers have declined comment.
The plea deal calls for a sentence of 30 days in custody followed by a year of supervision and 100 hours of community service. However, a judge will have the final say on the sentence at an April 20 hearing.
The investigation of Love was sparked by a lawsuit filed last year in federal court against him and the government by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project on behalf of Lanuza. Matt Adams, a spokesman for the group, called the case an important step in establishing accountability and sending a message that all people are entitled to a fair hearing.
Lanuza's immigration case had been reopened earlier and five years later an immigration court approved his application for permanent residence, Adams said.
Lanuza said Friday he's glad legal action was taken against Love.
"I remain worried about how many other people were impacted by his actions but did not take their cases as far as I did," he said in a statement.
ICE officials said they conducted an investigation, interviewed dozens of witnesses and reviewed case files but found no other instances of improper conduct by Love, who resigned from his position at ICE in November.
"ICE has zero tolerance for civil servants who abuse their authority," said Shawn Fallah, ICE resident agent in charge in Seattle. "While the vast majority of Department of Homeland Security employees are honorable and upstanding, taking swift action against those who violate the public's trust is not an option — it is an obligation we have to the people we serve."
Authorities said Lanuza entered the country illegally in 1996 and later settled in Seattle. He was caught by ICE in 2008 after pleading guilty to unlawfully displaying a weapon after handling a friend's pistol at a party, according to the lawsuit. The following year, he married his girlfriend, a U.S. citizen.
While in custody in 2008, Lanuza signed a form called I-826 that gives notice that he was in the country illegally but had the right to appear before an immigration court.
When Love took over the case in 2009, he altered that I-826 form by changing the date from July 3, 2008, to Jan. 13, 2000, the plea agreement said. Love also made "other material and fraudulent alterations" to the form, the agreement said.
Love sent that altered form to the immigration court and argued that the form showed that Lanuza broke the rule requiring 10 years of continuous physical presence in the U.S. that would make him eligible to stay.
The court deported Lanuza "expressly on the basis of the forged document," Adams said. The deportation order was upheld on appeal, but Lanuza was later allowed back after Love's fraudulent conduct was discovered, Adams said.
Lanuza's civil case against Love was dismissed and was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case against the federal government remains active.
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