New York Times
By Miriam Jordan
May 10, 2017
Jessica Colotl embodied the debate over illegal immigration when she was locked up for 37 days and nearly sent back to Mexico after an Atlanta-area police officer caught her driving without a license in 2010.
To supporters, including her sorority sisters, the president of her college and the immigrant advocates who publicized her case, hers was an example of police overreach and the need to safeguard ambitious young students from deportation. To others, she was an illegal immigrant, plain and simple, who also was abusing the system by attending a public college at discounted tuition.
She returned to college — paying full price, because of a new Georgia law inspired by her case — completed her degree and qualified for a program started by President Barack Obama in 2012, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects some undocumented youth from deportation.
“Since then, I have been working and doing well for myself,” Ms. Colotl, now 28, said in an interview this week. “I thought that all the legal battles were behind me.”
That was until Ms. Colotl, who was brought to the United States by her parents as a child, learned Monday that her DACA status had been revoked, thrusting her into the national immigration debate anew.
With a new president in the White House, she is once again facing deportation.
Dustin Baxter, Ms. Colotl’s lawyer, on Tuesday requested that a federal judge in Atlanta intervene and reinstate her DACA protection.
“We are taking an innocent girl who has done nothing but contribute to the society she has been a part of since she was 11 and making her a villain and poster child for Trump’s deportation policies,” Mr. Baxter said in an interview.
About 750,000 immigrants have benefited from DACA, and even as he has promised to crack down on illegal immigration, President Trump has said repeatedly that he will not target DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers.
But since 2012, more than 1,500 Dreamers have had their DACA status revoked for criminal activity, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After her arrest for driving without a license, Ms. Colotl had been charged with providing a false address to a law enforcement officer, a felony. She admitted guilt and had the case dismissed after completing community service, a common outcome for low-level offenses. Though she was not convicted, under immigration law her admission to the crime was enough to initiate the loss of DACA status.
While the Obama administration allowed Ms. Colotl into the program in 2013 — and allowed her to renew in 2015 — the new administration appears less willing to overlook her record.
“Jessica Colotl, an unlawfully present Mexican national, admitted guilt to a felony charge in August 2011 of making a false statement to law enforcement in Cobb County, Ga.,” said an ICE statement. “Ms. Colotl was subsequently allowed to enter a diversionary program by local authorities; however, under federal law her guilty plea is considered a felony conviction for immigration purposes.”
Ms. Colotl’s original case became emblematic of hot-button immigration questions, like whether young undocumented immigrants deserved a pass, whether they should benefit from in-state tuition and whether an enforcement program designed to identify violent criminals for removal was ensnaring other immigrants as well.
During her junior year at Kennesaw State University, on March 28, 2010, Ms. Colotl was pulled over for blocking traffic in a parking lot at the college.
She had no license, so within days she was transferred to federal immigration custody under a program known as 287(g), which lets local officials act as immigration-law enforcers and cooperate with deportation authorities.
She spent more than a month in an Alabama detention facility until being released, thanks to campaigning on her behalf. She became a symbol of the long and ultimately unsuccessful fight to pass the federal Dream Act, which would have legalized immigrants like Ms. Colotl who entered the United States as children, and which opponents criticized as an amnesty measure.
“Jessica has a dream,” read a sign at a rally held by Lambda Theta Alpha, the Latina sorority she had helped establish at the college. “Support the Dream Act.”
Nine days after her release, the Cobb County sheriff, Neil Warren, pressed charges against Ms. Colotl, saying she had supplied a false address to a deputy who had booked her into jail, a felony.
“Ms. Colotl knew that she was in the United States without authority to be here and voluntarily chose to operate a vehicle without a driver’s license,” Sheriff Warren said at the time, adding that she had “further complicated her situation with her blatant disregard for Georgia law by giving false information.”
Mr. Warren championed his county’s participation in 287(g), a program that groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia derided for snagging a “promising student” like Ms. Colotl, rather than hardened criminals, and for promoting racial profiling. Nationally, an outcry against the program prompted the Obama administration to scale it back. Mr. Trump wants it used more often.
State legislators who became aware that Ms. Colotl was paying in-state tuition passed a law to make undocumented students pay out-of-state rates when attending public colleges. Some candidates for governor invoked Ms. Colotl in their calls for curbing illegal immigration in Georgia.
Ms. Colotl finished college and began working as a legal assistant at the law office of Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney whose firm represents her now. (Her parents have since moved back to Mexico.)
Mr. Obama began DACA, letting young undocumented immigrants like Ms. Colotl stay in the United States and work legally. But while the failed Dream Act could have eventually let Ms. Colotl become a permanent resident, DACA protection must be renewed every two years and can more easily be revoked.
The Trump administration so far has not used that power often. In the first three months of 2017, the government revoked DACA protections from 179 recipients for criminal activity and other reasons, a rate similar to that of the final year of the Obama administration.
But Ms. Colotl, apparently, is not getting a pass.
She said that just last week she had donated platelets at a hospital to help people in need. Now, she said, she feels persona non grata, unable to work and threatened with ejection from the country.
“I plan to continue fighting,” she said. “This has to be a mistake.”
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