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Deportation battle ignites rally in Erie

| Monday, March 17, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Photo provided by HOLA Ohio
Alfredo Ramos-Gallegos, center, poses for a photo with his children, Cristian Ramos, 14 (left) and Diona Ramos, 12.

Friends say Alfredo Ramos-Gallegos lived a spotless life for two decades, raising and supporting two children through hard labor, ambition and kindness.

But even his loved ones acknowledge a big complication: Ramos-Gallegos, 40, of Painesville, Ohio, was in America illegally. Deported to Mexico once, after a factory raid, he sneaked back into the country to be with his pregnant wife about 15 years ago.

Busted again and facing possible jail time, Ramos-Gallegos is at the center of an anti-deportation movement arguing that federal prosecutors are too tough on illegal immigrants who commit no other crimes. Advocates for the law insist that undocumented migrants often swipe jobs from American citizens, use taxpayer-backed social services and undermine lawful immigrants.

“It's really not fair to all the people who are sponsoring family members or employees using our legal immigration system,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “I don't think it's wrong for the government to undertake prosecution. I wish they didn't have to do it so many times.”

Independent reports suggest that Ramos-Gallegos, a former resident of Guanajuato, Mexico, who is in the Erie County Prison, is among a growing number of people prosecuted for illegally entering or re-entering the country.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group found more than 80,000 people were convicted of the crimes in 2012.

The convictions follow a 1,400 percent increase in illegal-entry prosecutions and a 300 percent increase in re-entry prosecutions in the past decade, Human Rights Watch reported. Immigration-related concerns accounted for 40.6 percent of criminal cases handled by U.S. attorneys in fiscal year 2012, down from 41.8 percent in 2011, according to an annual Department of Justice report.

The department in Washington would not discuss the trends with the Tribune-Review, although President Obama separately said on Thursday that deportations should be more compassionate. He ordered a review of immigration enforcement.

“We want to make people aware of how broken the system is. The Department of Justice evidently has so much money that they can keep going after immigrants like (Ramos-Gallegos) who pose no threat to our community whatsoever, while you have serious felons out there,” said activist Veronica Dahlberg. She leads HOLA Ohio, a grass-roots Latino group seeking an overhaul in immigration policies and a reprieve for Ramos-Gallegos, whose attorney declined to comment.

HOLA plans to send busloads of demonstrators on Thursday to gather outside the federal courthouse in Erie, where Ramos-Gallegos has a scheduled court appearance. If convicted, he could be sentenced to two years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both, according to federal prosecutors.

His absence is a hardship for his family, including a daughter who just turned 12, said ex-wife Susan Ramos-Gallegos, 39, an American citizen who lives in Painesville.

“She cries herself to sleep every night, wondering why she can't see her dad,” said Ramos-Gallegos, calling her former husband's detention “incomprehensible.”

“There really isn't a mean bone in his body,” she said.

She and Dahlberg reported Alfredo Ramos-Gallegos worked in manufacturing but said they did not know where. Federal rules require employers to verify and record the legal status of workers by reviewing resident cards, driver's licenses, Social Security cards or other official documents.

Ramos-Gallegos got into trouble on Feb. 8 in Mentor, Ohio, when he voluntarily produced a Mexican voter registration card during a routine traffic stop, said Mentor police Lt. Tom Powers. He said police called Border Patrol for backup because they could not verify the card's legality.

That's when authorities took Ramos-Gallegos into custody. U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton in Pittsburgh, whose office is handling the matter, said he would not discuss an active case.

In a statement, he said his office “implemented a fast-track policy to expedite handling of criminal immigration cases” and that the approach does not hobble “our ability to pursue serious offenders.”

A 1996 law requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize cases of illegal immigrants deported previously, and lawmakers have adopted bigger budgets to help authorities go after immigration scofflaws, Vaughan said. The number of illegal-re-entry offenders reported to the federal Sentencing Commission jumped from 13,268 in fiscal year 2008 to 19,257 in fiscal year 2012, according to a commission report.

Another commission report cites an 11 percent year-over-year decline in immigration cases sentenced in federal court in 2012, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Commission analysts found that 46 percent of offenders sentenced in federal court that year were not citizens, he said.

“That shows our failure to enforce immigration laws is a prime contributor to crime in this country,” von Spakovsky said.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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