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'Constitution-free zone' at IAH kept teacher detained three months

KTRK By and Trent Seibert

Thursday, December 04, 2014 10:26PM HOUSTON (KTRK) -- A teacher who has held a Green Card since 1993 was stopped at Bush Intercontinental Airport this summer and detained for three months without bail after a background check revealed several non-violent misdemeanors, some which were two decades old.

Since his last misdemeanor guilty plea, Alex Lopez has led an exemplary life, according to court records, interviews with friends, colleagues, as well as letters from students and the principal of the Palm Bay Magnet School in Florida where Lopez has taught for 10 years.

"This has to be a mix-up, this is unjust, this is stupid," Lopez said he thought as he was stopped by US Customs and Border Patrol officers on August 1. "I had some arrests, back in my college years."

Some of Lopez's misdemeanors include a DUI, issuing a bad check and petty larceny. The most recent was a 14-year-old charge.

An ABC-13 investigation has found:

  • Thousands of legal, foreign nationals who live in the US are detained while passing through what Lopez's lawyer called "Constitution-free zones" at airports across the nation. They are held without bail. They cannot call a lawyer. At the same time, foreigners who cross illegally into the US are allowed to ask for bail and tens of thousands of people who illegally crossed the Rio Grande this summer were released on their own recognizance.
  • About 48,000 legal, foreign nationals were stopped at airport Customs in the US last year because of past crimes and detained until they could see an immigration judge. It's unclear how many of those had been convicted of major crimes, such as rape, assault and money laundering, and how many had a record with decades-old nonviolent misdemeanors like Lopez.
  • Those who are detained can wait months before they can see an immigration judge, sometimes losing jobs because of them being held behind bars for so long. A shortage of immigration judges is one cause of the long wait-times.


"The United States is a welcoming country," Customs and Border Patrol Officials said in a statement to ABC-13. "At all our ports of entry, CBP screens all travelers using a risk-based approach. CBP does not discuss specific cases; however, lawful permanent residents convicted of certain crimes may be referred to an immigration hearing to determine removability."

See the CBP's full statement here.

When Lopez landed in Houston, making a connection from his home country of Guatemala en route to Florida, Customs officers performed a routine background check.

Customs rules say that if a foreign national -- even a permanent resident like Lopez -- has two or more misdemeanor convictions, that person can be detained. But lawyers told ABC-13 that Customs officers have discretion on who to detain. CBP officials told ABC-13 that they look at "each conviction and the circumstances surrounding it."

Lopez has returned to Guatemala several times since the year of his last guilty plea. And upon other returns back to the US, he had been waved through customs in Miami and Chicago.

Here's what the law also says: Once someone like Lopez is in custody, he's not allowed to post bond. He was also not allowed to call a lawyer.

"When you are charged as an arriving alien, technically you are not in the United States; you haven't been admitted to the country," said Mana Yegani, Lopez's attorney. "Therefore, an immigration judge doesn't have jurisdiction to release you on a bond. The Constitution essentially doesn't apply."

Lopez's family ultimately contacted Yegani and started an online crowdsourcing effort to pay for Lopez's defense. Lopez estimates that cost may be around $12,000.

Lopez's case was not an isolated incident.

Lopez's attorney said that she has had 10 similar cases this year of foreign-born residents traveling from abroad through Bush Intercontinental. These are individuals legally allowed to live in the US who had minor run-ins with the law, sometimes decades ago and sometimes after those guilty pleas were expunged by a court. She's won every case.

In 2014 there were 4,194 foreign nationals stopped at Bush and ordered to see an immigration judge because of crimes in their past. Last year that number was 4,088 and in 2012 that number was 4,132.

CBP officials said that the most common past crimes that get foreign nationals brought before an immigration judge for removal are: Fraud, theft, rape and related crimes, assault and battery, money laundering, drug convictions and alien smuggling.

It's unclear how many of those 4,000-plus individuals stopped at Bush annually over the last three years had violent or drug crimes on their records as opposed to those with records like Lopez's, who has decades-old misdemeanors.

And while Lopez was detained at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe for three months -- from August 1 till his release on October 28 -- there were many others also waiting months to see a judge. Lopez said he met a man in a similar situation while being detained and said that man had been there nine months.

At least part of the reason for the long stays for many detained is a shortage of immigration judges. This shortage became more strained with the surge of Central American children began pouring over the US-Mexican border this summer.

Nationally, there are more than 375,000 pending cases before 227 immigration judges, according to the National Association of Immigration Judges.

Keeping legal residents -- and taxpayers -- like Lopez locked up for months is "a waste of tax dollars and a waste of time," Yegani said.

"They have jobs, they have kids, they have families they need to support," Yegani said. "They go on a short trip, or they go on a business trip and when they come back they get stopped at the airport and they get detained and can't get released on bond."

Yegani said she believes that Customs agents at Bush appear to use less discretion in deciding who to detain compared to other ports of entry into the US. And she points to several of her other clients cases who traveled through IAH with minor or decades-old misdemeanors and ended up detained for months.

"Officers at the Bush Airport do not exercise good judgment," she said.

Customs officials did not address that issue.

The Houston airport does have the highest per-capita number of foreign-born residents being stopped at Customs after being flagged with crimes in their past, when compared to several other busy international airports, such as those in Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and New York, records show.

ABC-13 also found that while people like Lopez going through Customs can be detained without bond, thousands who have crossed the US border illegally are routinely let go, on bond or with a "notice to appear" before a judge at some point in the future.

Over the last year, Border Patrol agents arrested about 420,000 people crossing the border into the US illegally, most of them along the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley. All of them -- unlike Lopez -- are allowed to ask for a bond. Indeed, tens of thousands of people who illegally crossed the Rio Grande this summer were released on their own recognizance.

When Lopez first arrived in the US from Guatemala in 1993, his start was undeniably rocky.

He initially lived in New York. He had several misdemeanor arrests. For example, In 1994, he entered a guilty plea for a DUI. He was found guilty of a similar charge in 1996 and had his license revoked. In 1998, he was found guilty of driving without a license and issuing a bad check.

"It was a really tough time in my life," Lopez told the immigration court during his October 27 hearing.

His last misdemeanor was in 2000. Lopez was working at a local Radio Shack. A customer came in to buy a cell phone. The customer said he wanted the phone and would sign up for a contract. The customer left, and Lopez signed off on the contract for the customer without the customer present. The customer did not return and Lopez used the phone for some time.

Lopez entered guilty plea for forgery and paid restitution.

At some point soon after, Lopez turned his life around.

He started to train to become a teacher. He began volunteering. And Lopez became a Spanish teacher in the Brevard County school district in Florida, where he has been working for approximately 10 years.

In addition to his teaching duties, he continued to volunteer. He taught English as a second language at night. He has a son, now six. He coached soccer. He grew into a beloved educator, as shown by the many letters from students, fellow teachers and his principal that flooded the court for Lopez's hearing.

Lopez's Palm Bay Magnet High colleague Sandra Martin showed ABC-13 a book of statements sent by Lopez's students.

"I couldn't have picked a better Spanish teacher if I had a chance to," wrote one.

"You are so passionate in what you do it makes us want to learn," wrote another.

"He's a great teacher," Martin said. "The students love him."

In fact, when Lopez was stopped at Bush Intercontinental on August 1, he was returning from Guatemala on a volunteer trip helping poor children there.

"I was on a mission trip to Guatemala to help some children from the city dumps," he said. "I know what it's like. I grew up with bare feet."

Even the immigration judge who allowed Lopez to go free on October 27 remarked on what a model community member that the teacher had become since his last brush with the law.

"I've never seen anything like it," Judge Richard Walton said.

At the end of it all, Lopez said he was grateful to be out.

"It's an amazing day," he said. "It's an incredible day."

As far as flying through Bush Airport?

"I don't want to mess with Texas ever again," Lopez said. 

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