By Nancy Lofholm
The Denver Post
The oldest of eight sisters, Lizeth Amateco, 19, is joined by Ashley, 3, at their home in Aurora. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)
Until recently, Lizeth Amateco had never heard the term "prosecutorial discretion." Now, her future depends on it.
Amateco, 19, is one of the 7,800 illegal immigrants whose cases are being reviewed by federal prosecutors during a six-week pilot program being carried out to test the effectiveness of prosecutorial discretion in immigration court in Denver. Cases also are being reviewed in Baltimore.
This review that has been underway for two weeks means that government attorneys are sifting through files and determining which cases should go on the "low priority" pile, effectively freezing proceedings, or on the "priority" stack. In the latter cases, the government would move forward with prosecutions and deportations.
While prosecutors huddle over the daunting stacks of files and Denver immigration attorneys stay busy trying to determine which of their cases might be set aside, the many illegal immigrants like Amateco, who fit the noncriminal, longtime-resident profile, are anxiously waiting for word on their fate.
"I think it's a great way to introduce some justice into the system," said Aminta Menjivar, a 20-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who is attending college at the University of Denver, facing deportation and also waiting to see where the review will put her case.
In the simplest terms, exercising prosecutorial discretion means choosing to press cases against felons, repeat offenders, gang members, those with an egregious record of immigration violations and those who pose a risk to national security, while leaving otherwise law-abiding citizens alone.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton has issued a list of 19 factors that the attorneys poring over the Denver files are taking into account.
Some are subjective. Others are easily quantified.
The attorneys are directed to give weight to circumstances such as being brought to the country as a child, pursuing an education, being the caretaker of someone disabled or seriously ill, contributing to the community and serving in the military.
Whichever pile cases land on, life will continue to be an undocumented limbo for many. Being placed on the low-priority pile means cases are only put on hold, not dismissed.
"This (prosecutorial discretion) would be an absolute godsend for some. For others, it might not be so great," said Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney and president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
STORIES BEHIND THE NAMES ON THE FILES BEING REVIEWED
Aminta Menjivar, 20, is a classic "dreamer" — someone brought to the country as a child who is a high achiever and is trying to pursue the American Dream.
Her parents brought her to the United States from El Salvador when she was 10. They applied for asylum based on the violence they faced during the civil war at home. They hired a "cheap" attorney who allowed the case to drag on for years until they were flagged for removal.
Menjivar has no criminal record. She graduated from high school with honors and is a student at the University of Denver studying international business and law. She hopes to go on to law school and to work at the United Nations.
Menjivar called the prosecutorial-discretion directive "a double-edged sword.""On the one hand, it will allow me to stay in the U.S. Most likely then I can go to law school and achieve my dreams," she said. "On the other hand, it will put my case on hold. It will put me on hold."
Lizeth Amateco has been in the country since her parents brought her here when she was 8.
In March, she was driving to a friend's house in a Denver neighborhood she was unfamiliar with and was stopped by police because she seemed "suspicious." The officer asked her immigration status. When she started crying, he handcuffed her and took her to jail. She spent about five days in jail on an immigration hold and has been fighting removal since.
Her family is here. One parent is a resident, and the other is a citizen. She has no criminal record. She graduated from high school in 2010 and plans to go to college to study economics. She is enrolled in one class at Metro State College of Denver in the spring semester because that is all she could afford while also paying attorney fees.
"Prosecutorial discretion gave me hope. I was really excited when I first heard about it, but I'm skeptical. Now, I don't know, to be honest. I just don't know about it," she said. "I have heard of so many other people with cases like mine who have been deported. I am scared."
Elisa, a 42-year-old woman who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, came to Brighton in 1999 from Mexico with her parents, who are U.S. citizens. Her mother is blind, and her father has advanced Parkinson's disease. Her U.S.-citizen son, 9, has learning disabilities and is in special-education classes. She is the only one to care for them since her brother died of a heart attack last year.
Elisa has no criminal history. She is in deportation proceedings because a notario filed an application for a green card for her, using a category of application for which she was not eligible. When the court denied her application, her case was flagged for deportation.
She has been fighting removal in court since 2006 and has been through about eight hearings. Elisa said this chance at a freeze on her case makes her feel that she has some time to relax for a change while she waits to learn if the review will help her. "I trust God that it will," she said.
Fernando Jara, 19, was brought to the United States by his parents when he was about 3 years old.
When he was 17 and a high school student in Denver, he wrote a slur on his school bathroom wall. The school resource officer handcuffed him and took him to jail, where he was issued a misdemeanor ticket for defacing property. He hadn't been in trouble before and said he had no understanding of the legal system. He didn't go to court for his hearing, he acknowledged, because he was worried that it would lead to deportation.
A year later, he was riding in a vehicle that was pulled over by police. He was jailed because of a failure-to-appear warrant from his missed hearing. He was turned over to immigration authorities because of his illegal status.
Jara is working at a hotel now but has dreams of being a firefighter. He has already completed CPR classes and is planning to take EMT classes after he gets an answer on his case.
He has a 3-year-old son who is an American citizen."I will be devastated if this (court review) doesn't help me," he said. "I won't be able to be with my son. I don't know anyone in Mexico. I have never been there — that I can remember."