Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The law applies to government too

From the beginning, the latest attempted deportation of 29-year-old Jessica Colotl has smacked of petty bureaucratic vengeance masquerading as law enforcement, with an innocent young woman as its intended victim.

The good news is that Colotl’s deportation has been halted, thanks to a federal judge who recognized what was happening and called out immigration officials for violating their own rules and policies. The bad news is that Colotl’s reprieve may only be temporary.

If you recognize Jessica’s name, it’s not surprising. Her predicament may be shared by hundreds of thousands of people, but fate and circumstance have given her a higher profile than most. She was brought here illegally from Mexico when she was 11 and went on to graduate from Lakeside High School in DeKalb County with honors. From there, she went on to Kennesaw State University, joining a sorority and majoring in political science.

But in 2010, while waiting for a parking space to open up, Colotl was stopped by Kennesaw campus police and later charged with driving without a license. She pleaded guilty and served three days in jail as punishment, ostensibly ending the misdemeanor case and avoiding deportation.

Almost a year later, however, she was arrested again by local officials, this time on a felony charge of making false statements to police officers. Her specific offense? Allegedly giving them a false address during her first arrest. The trumped-up charges, later dropped, were widely seen as an after-the-fact attempt to force Colotl’s deportation by authorities who were frustrated that their first attempt had failed. Once again, in a legal case that drew national attention, she was allowed to stay and complete her degree.

Since 2013, Colotl had been living under protection of a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, open to immigrants who had been brought here as children, had gotten a high school education and did not have a felony conviction. In short, like Colotl, they are Americans in everything but paperwork, people who have done nothing wrong themselves and have worked to build a life in this country. DACA gives them a temporary reprieve against deportation, a temporary work permit and Social Security number, and the legal right to a drivers’ license

To most Americans, that’s a more-just outcome than forcing these so-called “Dreamers” to be forcibly returned to a country that some have no memory of even seeing. But times have changed. Our new president, Donald Trump, has at times angrily promised to “immediately terminate” DACA and deport the Dreamers. In other moods, before other audiences, he has promised to protect them against deportation, telling them to “rest easy.”

In that unsettled environment, and without warning, Colotl’s protected status under DACA was revoked in March by immigration officials. Once again deportation loomed; once again, the excuse was the felony charge of giving a false address that supposedly made her too dangerous to stay in the country.

In a decision Monday, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ruled that Colotl’s DACA status had been “unlawfully terminated” by immigration officials. The government’s “interest in enforcing immigration laws does not justify them running roughshod over (Colotl) by ignoring their own required procedures,” he wrote.

So this time, in this case, for now, justice has been done. But our unwillingness to work toward a comprehensive, permanent solution to this issue has left millions in long-term limbo.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.