Federal immigration officials admitted this week that the suspect in the February slayings of four people in Charlotte, N.C., was granted special immigration status – shielding him from deportation two years ago despite being listed in a federal database as a gang member.
Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez, 19, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in connection with a three-day shooting spree that included the death of one-time “America’s Next Top Model” contestant Mirjana Puhar.
The revelation casts a shadow on the Obama administration’s efforts to expand the controversial immigration program that’s intended to protect one of the most sympathetic groups of immigrants in the country illegally – young people brought here as children.
Federal authorities have since found 13 other cases in the same federal crime database of people were approved for protection from deportation. Those cases are now being reconsidered.
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Rangel-Hernandez never should have received the protective status and likely would have been deported had U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services followed proper procedures and protocols, federal officials said in a letter Friday to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who had been questioning the case.
In 2013, Rangel-Hernandez applied for and was granted the special protective status, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, despite the fact that he was listed in a federal crime database as a known gang member.
It’s unclear whether his background check failed to discover the record in the database or whether an adjudicator approved the application despite knowledge of the gang ties.
Rangel-Hernandez was slated for deportation as a result of a 2012 arrest for possession of marijuana. The charges were eventually dismissed after he was granted deferred action, but the removal proceeding continued until December 2013.
Grassley and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., highlighted the case after a federal whistleblower told them the U.S. government had records of Rangel-Hernandez’s gang ties.
“The flawed implementation of the president’s blanket deferred action program has created a loophole that allows dangerous criminals who came here illegally – even known gang members – to stay in the country,” Tillis said in a statement Tuesday.
Citizenship and Immigration Services officials admitted in the letter to Grassley’s office that federal officials should not have granted Rangel-Hernandez deferred action.
“Based on standard procedures and protocols in place at the time, the DACA request and related employment authorization should not have been approved,” León Rodríguez, the Citizenship and Immigration Services director, wrote in the letter.
More than 600,000 people have received protection from deportation and granted work permits through the 2012 deferral program, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Rafael Prieto, an editor and columnist with Charlotte’s Que Pasa Mi Gente Spanish-language newspaper, said Tuesday that Citizenship and Immigration Services messed up. It should never have given Rangel-Hernandez deferred action, but the mistake doesn’t detract from the benefits of a program that has “transformed the lives” of hundreds of thousands of young people.
Prieto noted that Rangel-Hernandez had to pass several different background checks and was not listed on a North Carolina gang database.
He described the efforts by Grassley and Tillis as politically motivated with a single objective: to damage a good program.
“The majority of these kids are good people,” Prieto said in an interview. “They’re contributing to the country.”
But North Carolina’s senior senator, Republican Richard Burr, called the revelations “chilling.”
“The administration has promised Americans that those who qualify for their executive order would fully meet a set of guidelines meant to keep criminals out of the country,” Burr said in a statement. “We now know that isn’t true.”