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L.A. father detained by ICE after dropping daughter at school may be deported

The family of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, an immigrant in the country illegally whose case has drawn international media attention, was devastated to learn that he could be deported as early as next week.

Avelica-Gonzalez, 49, has been held at a federal detention facility since Feb. 28, when immigration agents arrested him minutes after he dropped off his 12-year-old daughter at her Lincoln Heights school.

Lawyers for Avelica-Gonzalez in June settled the two decades-old misdemeanor convictions — for driving under the influence and for receiving stolen car tags — that prompted his arrest. He pleaded guilty to lesser vehicle code violations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had cited a deportation order based on the former convictions as the reason for picking him up in February. His lawyers had hoped that with the changes, ICE would grant his release and cancel his deportation order.

Avelica-Gonzalez, a Mexican citizen, has lived in the United States for 25 years. ICE agents pulled him over and detained him six blocks from the school where he had dropped off his daughter. Another daughter in the car with him, now 14, sobbed as she recorded cellphone video of the encounter.

Video of the family’s story went viral and has attracted international attention.

Avelica-Gonzalez’s lawyers have petitioned the Board of Immigration Appeals to consider reopening his immigration case as a result of the conviction changes. He is being held at the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County.

When ICE agents detained Avelica-Gonzalez, his attorneys filed an emergency stay of removal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, preventing his immediate deportation. The court reviewed the case and dismissed the stay in June.

As a result, the stay will expire August 5, said Avelica-Gonzalez’s immigration lawyer, Alan Diamante. He could be deported as early as August 7.

“If there’s no 9th Circuit stay, there could be nothing keeping him here,” Diamante said. “And that’s our concern.”

In late March, Avelica-Gonzalez and his wife, Norma, submitted applications for U visas, which are available to victims of crime and their immediate family members, based on a crime that Norma was the victim of in December 2016. Diamante declined to provide details about the crime out of respect for the family and any potential further investigation.

The number of people with pending U visa applications has skyrocketed from 21,000 in 2009 to nearly 170,000 as of March. Congress has set a cap granting 10,000 U visas each year. Applicants on the waiting list are granted deferrals of their deportation and allowed to apply for work permits.

Diamante, who took up Avelica-Gonzalez’s case pro bono, said he should be released while he awaits the fate of his application.

“U visa applicants should not be living in fear that they’ll be deported while they’re waiting for their cases to be adjudicated,” he said.

In late June, Diamante filed a petition for another stay of Avelica-Gonzalez’s deportation with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, knowing that the 9th Circuit stay would be lifted. The request was primarily based on his pending U visa application and the changes to his criminal history.

Homeland Security denied the request, saying it had been filed prematurely. Diamante plans to refile August 7, once the 9th Circuit stay has been lifted. If Homeland Security again denies his request, he’ll file a last-ditch emergency stay of deportation with the Board of Immigration Appeals.

But Diamante worries that if Homeland Security denies his request too late in the day, ICE could move to deport Avelica-Gonzalez before he has time to file with and receive a response from the immigration appeals board.

“We’re just hoping that the government will do the right thing,” he said.

andrea.castillo@latimes.com

@andreamcastillo

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