Deportation issue clouds hit-and-run case

Article subtitle: 
Forest Grove driver rejects a plea offer that would likely cause deportation
Article author: 
Jill Rehkopf Smith |
Article publisher: 
News Times
Article date: 
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Article category: 
Article Body: 

Deportation has become one of the main issues in the case of the 18-year-old driver of the car that allegedly struck and killed two Forest Grove sisters playing in a leaf pile.

Cinthya Garcia-Cisneros, 18, has been charged with two counts of “Failure to perform the duties of a driver,” more commonly known as hit-and-run. The Class C felony is punishable by up to five years in prison.

At a pre-trial conference last week, District Attorney Bracken McKey offered a plea deal to Garcia (who does not use the Cisneros part of her name) that would limit her prison term to 16 months if she would plead guilty to one charge instead of taking the case to trial.

“Cinthya declined this offer because she is not guilty of the crimes with which she is accused,” said Garcia’s attorney, Ethan Levi. “Although she has no desire to aggravate the grief of the families, she is not willing to be deported or go to prison when she did not commit a crime.

“A deportation stemming from a criminal conviction in this case would require her to make her home in a country she hadn’t lived in since she was a toddler, without the only family with whom she is close,” he said. “The death of these children was a tragic accident. While Cinthya’s actions after the accident were not perfect, they also were not criminal.”

McKey declined to comment on the deportation issue or anything else about the case.

Garcia was brought to the U.S. illegally at the age of 4, but is now here legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama. According to Garcia’s immigration attorney, Courtney Carter, Garcia has been placed on a hold from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and if she is convicted of the felonies, her DACA status will be revoked and she will be sent to the ICE facility in Tacoma.

“The deportation proceedings would be swift and there’s nothing I can do,” Carter said.

That scenario is “probably pretty likely,” said Teresa Statler, a Portland immigration attorney who has no connection to Garcia’s case.

Cautioning that she does not know the details of the case, Statler said that not only would the government likely revoke Garcia’s legal standing under DACA, but under one part of Section 237 of the federal Immigration Act, residents without legal standing “shall, upon order of the Attorney General, be removed” if they are convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude ... for which a sentence of one year or longer may be imposed.”

A hit-and-run is classified as a crime involving “moral turpitude,” defined in legal dictionaries as “conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals.”

Carter said she might be able to prevent deportation if the charges are downgraded and Garcia is convicted of something less.

But if the hit-and-run felony stands, Carter said, Garcia would not only be deported, it’s likely she would never be able to return to the U.S., even if she married her boyfriend and legal resident, Mario Echeverria, who was with her in the car at the time of the Oct. 20 accident.

“Certain criminal convictions do make you ineligible to return,” said Ellen Weintraut, another Portland immigration attorney unconnected with the case. People may have the impression that marriage to an American citizen is a quick ticket back to the U.S., she said, but “unfortunately for our clients, it’s not the case.”

Statler said there are complicated, remote routes by which Garcia might be able to return, especially if she married an American citizen. “The reality is, she may have to leave, go to Mexico, file for a green card and then apply to come back with a pardon from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials,” she said.

Such pardons are discretionary, Statler said, and an official may decline to issue one. In deciding, a USCIS official might consider everything from the legal details of the court case to whether the victims (or their families) had any strong feelings about a pardon, Statler said.

At her pre-trial conference last week, Garcia, who appeared in chains and an orange jail jumpsuit before a packed courtroom, waived her right to a speedy trial. This allowed Washington County Circuit Court Judge Donald Letourneau to set the trial date for Jan. 7, 2014.

A trial judge will be assigned to the case Jan. 3.