Wider immigration net catches legal residents
Non-citizens accused of crimes are being affected by broader local enforcement of law.
By JEFF OVERLEY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
She hails from a well-to-do family with a hilltop home in Orange. She's a mother of two who made a decent living in cosmetology and studied in college to be a teacher.
Sharon Denise Lee might not be the sort of person people had in mind when local law enforcement bolstered immigration screening efforts in recent months.
But the 46-year-old, who came to the United States from England when she was 19, now sits in county jail, awaiting deportation because of several run-ins with the law, including commercial burglary and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Her case isn't unique. Several "lawful permanent residents" – non-citizens allowed to live and work in the country – have been detained through new immigration-enforcement programs in Orange County.
Like illegal immigrants, "green card" holders such as Lee have long faced local immigration checks. But the recent placement of a federal agent in Costa Mesa's jail, as well as federal training of deputies in the county lock-up, has widened the net considerably.
In 2005, when part-time federal agents staffed the county jail, only about 20 percent of foreign-born inmates were screened. Now, with cross-trained deputies, virtually all are interviewed.
In Costa Mesa, police previously referred 20 to 30 inmates a month for immigration checks. Since December, a federal agent has flagged an average of 44 people a month for immigration violations.
The vast majority of detentions involve Latino illegal immigrants. Authorities don't track the number of cases involving lawful residents, but at the county level, natives of Egypt, Germany, Iran, Romania, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam have been flagged.
In Costa Mesa, federal officials confirmed three cases involving legal residents – a Ukrainian man from Mission Viejo who faces removal if convicted of burglary, a Filipino man from Spring Valley who could be deported for grand theft and receiving stolen property, and Lee.
Lee had been jailed several times before, but never faced deportation until a probation violation landed her in the Costa Mesa jail Jan. 8.
There, a federal agent noticed she was from the United Kingdom. She's been ineligible for bail ever since. Eventually she'll be placed in federal custody, and could face removal based on her record, said Virginia Kice of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Lee plans to fight. "I want to stay here. I want to get my life back together," she said in an interview at the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine.
Federal legislation and case law outline offenses that can lead to deportation. Violent felonies qualify, as do most drug crimes and certain offenses involving dishonesty, such as theft. Factors such as community ties and length of stay in the country – about 28 years, in Lee's case – are irrelevant in deportation proceedings.
"Obviously, someone who has been here legally … has something important at stake, so I imagine most of these people will contest their removal," Kice said.
Lawful residents most often come to the U.S. through family ties. Lee, sponsored by her father, came in 1979.
Besides being subject to removal, lawful residents forgo certain rights, such as voting in state and national elections. They may eschew citizenship for a variety of reasons.
"It's unique to the individual," Kice said. "Some people are very nationalistic. … You essentially renounce your allegiance to your native country."
Lee forsook citizenship because, she said, it meant relinquishing British citizenship.
Living in Orange and Anaheim Hills, she worked as a makeup artist and hair stylist, building a large clientele and doing makeup for the Miss City of Orange Pageant. She studied early childhood development at Cypress College.
For much of her early adulthood, she was a "model citizen," says her brother, Calvin. Old snapshots show her with family at Disneyland and smiling on the back patio of her father's house in Orange.
But in the late 1990s, Lee became involved in a dysfunctional relationship and stopped working.
After her father, a tool-and-die maker who ran his own business, died in 2003, Lee says she inherited tens of thousands of dollars, but "frittered it away" on hotel rooms and living expenses. She admits to occasional use of crystal methamphetamine. "My life went downhill," she says.
In May, Lee and two acquaintances stole clothes from a Huntington Beach Kohl's, court records show. Lee pleaded guilty to commercial burglary, but feels the charge was too severe and is appealing because of "ineffective counsel."
Later in 2006, Lee wound up in jail again for possessing drug paraphernalia. Then, in January, she ran into police at a Costa Mesa motel. She was with a boyfriend whom she was barred from seeing as a probation condition, and was arrested. She expects to stay in county jail until May; Immigration and Customs Enforcement has lodged a detainer to ensure she'll go into federal custody upon her release.
Because of her record, Calvin says his sister should agree to leave the United States so she can start anew. "I believe she'd be better off in another country," he said over coffee at a Santa Ana Starbucks.
That aside, Calvin feels his sister's situation is partly the result of wrong place, wrong time. A few years ago, he was convicted of felony drug charges, normally automatic grounds for removal for a non-citizen. But local immigration enforcement was less intense then, and Calvin managed to elude the radar of immigration officials in county jail.
"I'm lucky," he concedes, adding that he has been clean for more than two years.
Sharon Lee says she wants to stay to be near her two sons. One is 20 and living in Arizona; the other is 9 and lives in Pico Rivera with his father's family.
Deportation, she says, isn't fair, even if she's no angel. "I don't want to say I'm a victim, because we're all responsible for our own selves," she said. But, "It's not like I'm a repeat offender of mayhem. ... I'm not a career criminal."
Calvin says he'll do what he can to help. He's talked with the British Consulate, and is helping hire an attorney.
That aside, he's not optimistic. "She tells me, 'Don't you think I have a case?' " Calvin recalled. "And I can't look her in the eye and say yes."
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