Sunday, June 27, 2004

Star-Telegram | 06/27/2004 | COSTLY CONVICTIONS

Star-Telegram | 06/27/2004 | COSTLY CONVICTIONS

Posted on Sun, Jun. 27, 2004
Addison man fights toughened immigration laws, deportation
By Bill Miller
Star-Telegram Dallas Bureau

Dishonesty has cost Nacer Eden Fetamia, an Algerian-born private pilot and flight instructor, his right to live in the United States.

A legal resident alien since 1982, the 43-year-old Addison father of four American-born sons was convicted in 1994 of lying on a bank loan application. Then in 2002, he pleaded guilty to knowingly failing to declare a 1986 drunken-driving conviction on his pilot's license renewal form in 1997.

Immigration laws require the deportation of aliens who have been convicted twice of crimes involving moral turpitude, even if they do not pose a threat to homeland security.

Fetamia, a Catholic, dreads returning to Algeria, which is almost entirely Muslim. He is bitter toward the U.S. government and says he is a victim of a government crackdown fueled by hysteria over 9-11.

"This is ethnic cleansing in a legal way," he said recently during an interview inside the Rolling Plains Regional Jail and Detention Center in Haskell, where he has been held without bond since June of last year.

Immigration officials say they are required to deport Fetamia according to immigration laws that were signed by President Clinton in 1996.

"He's a recidivist criminal," said Nuria Prendes, a field director for the Dallas region of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We let him become a resident alien and then he violated our law, which makes him removable.

"If he was a U.S. citizen, it would be a different story, but he wasn't."

Before 1996, federal judges could determine whether an alien should be deported. A judge could consider a range of factors, including ties to the community or whether the person posed a risk to public safety.

In 1996, revisions barred waivers for anyone convicted of an aggravated felony, which, in Fetamia's case, was the 1994 conviction for lying on the bank loan application.

The rate of deportations has risen rapidly since the mid-1990s.

In 1993, 29,458 convicted aliens were deported. In 2002, 70,759 felons were deported. Last year, 2,988 criminals were deported from the Dallas region, which includes North Texas and parts of Oklahoma.

"But the impact of these statutes is that we're not only deporting serious felons, but also people with minor convictions," said Margaret Taylor, a law professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in alien detention issues.

"And we're tearing apart families," she added. "The bottom line is we should be making individualized detention determinations ... that are based on the equities of individual cases."

Taylor said that immigration laws were toughened in 1996 in response to a growing concern over illegal immigration. Advocates for tougher immigration policies said that fear was well-placed.

"The discretion needed to be removed because it was being abused," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It was a massive loophole."

For example, a report by the House Judiciary Committee in 2000 stated that from Oct. 1, 1994, to May 31, 1999, 37 percent of the 35,318 criminal aliens released by the government on discretionary waivers, or 13,067 people, went on to be convicted of other crimes.

Stein dismissed arguments that the ability to apply for discretionary relief should be reinstated for those convicted of nonviolent crimes.

"Crimes of moral turpitude are of particular interest to Congress," he said.

Members of the House have tried unsuccessfully to change portions of the law.

Marshall Fitz, associate director of advocacy for the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association, said his group favors a bill sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. He described it as a "wish list" that would, in part, make those convicted of crimes of moral turpitude subject to deportation only if the resulting penalty amounted to more than one year in prison.

The bill has been sitting untouched in a House committee since March 2003. Supporters and opponents say it probably won't get a hearing in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Fetamia piloted flights for Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, and for George W. Bush during his first Texas gubernatorial campaign.

Fetamia said that in 1993, he wanted to refinance an aircraft to get cash for engine repairs and "pumped up the numbers" while describing his assets on the loan application.

"I don't deny that," he said. "I take full responsibility for that. They gave me three years' probation."

In 2002, federal officials noticed that Fetamia didn't declare a 1986 conviction for drunken driving on a pilot's license renewal form in 1997.

Court records don't indicate whether the officials caught the infraction before Sept. 11, 2001, but FBI spokeswoman Lori Bailey said agents had been investigating Fetamia "well before September 11."

Fetamia said he believed that the 1986 DWI was no longer an issue because several years had passed.

Nevertheless, he decided that the best way to get the license application omission behind him was to plead guilty and serve 90 days in federal prison at Pecos.

On June 7, 2003, the day Fetamia was supposed to be released, the warden in Pecos received a fax from immigration officials stating that Fetamia was a flight risk and that he should be held.

He was sent to Haskell to await deportation.

Fetamia challenged his mandatory detention by filing a writ of habeas corpus, which could have resulted in a waiver of his deportation, but it was denied May 27 by U.S. District Judge Jeff Kaplan of Dallas.

His attorney, Joshua Turrin of Dallas, said that Fetamia wants to appeal that decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, but that his chances aren't good.

"He's probably pretty close to being at the end of the road," Turrin said. "It's a pretty cruel dilemma this family is in."

Jana Zeeb, Fetamia's American-born wife, said that the pending deportation has stressed her family and that she is not sure what the family will do when Fetamia exhausts his legal options.

Fetamia longs to be reunited with his wife and children, but he tries not to think much about them to avoid deep depression.

"It may take me a lifetime to explain to my kids what happened to me," Fetamia said.

Staff Writer Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.







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