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Why Is The City Attorney Taking A Harsh Stance Against An L.A. Father Fighting Deportation?

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Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez and two of his daughters. (Photo courtesy of NDLON)
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When Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, an undocumented father of four U.S.-born children, was arrested by immigration officials in late February while dropping his young daughters off at school, his case quickly became a cause célèbre. Accompanied by a video of his arrest filmed by his sobbing 13-year-old daughter, Avelica-Gonzalez's story attracted international media attention and outrage. "We need to make sure that this is not the beginning of a dangerous and dark time here," Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters soon after. In total, advocates say that 19 members of Congress, 11 members of the L.A. City Council, the president of the LAUSD board, and scores of religious leaders have spoken out against Avelica-Gonzalez's arrest and voiced their support for his release.

Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, Avelica-Gonzalez has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Along with raising his own four daughters, the Highland Park resident has also acted as a surrogate father figure to his four nieces and nephews. His job as a food preparer at a Mexican restaurant is his family's primary income. Avelica-Gonzalez has two misdemeanor criminal convictions, which is how he ended up on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's radar—the agency has used the convictions as justification in his deportation case.

Certain criminal convictions can cause immigrants to be placed in deportation proceedings, while other—often similar—convictions don't have the same ramifications for immigration proceedings. On January 1, 2017, a new California state law went into effect that explicitly provides immigrants like Avelica-Gonzalez with a legal remedy to potentially vacate convictions where they weren't advised of the potential adverse immigration consequences beforehand.

In light of the current climate, a number of prosecutors in jurisdictions across the country have taken steps to protect immigrants from unintended collateral consequences and exercise discretion in sentencing low-level offenders. Last month, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office announced an adjusted policy and the hiring of two new immigration attorneys who will advise prosecutors on how to avoid disproportionate collateral immigration consequences when making plea offers and sentencing recommendations for non-citizen defendants. Similar efforts are also underway at the Baltimore City state’s attorney's office among other jurisdictions, according to Vice.

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But here in L.A., City Attorney Mike Feuer has chosen a far different stance. Despite the fact that more than 40 community leaders signed a letter asking Feuer to support Avelica-Gonzalez's efforts to vacate his misdemeanor convictions, the City Attorney's Office has chosen to aggressively fight those efforts.

"They're fighting this tooth and nail," Emi MacLean, a staff attorney at the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, told LAist. "In this case, they're making a decision to use an inordinate amount of their resources [to prevent him from vacating the plea]. That seems fundamentally flawed. It seems like a complete affront to the values of the city, and what the resources of the office should be used for." A spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office told LAist that they were unable to comment on the case as it is a "pending criminal matter."

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Two of Avelica-Gonzalez's daughters at a rally in support of his release in March. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
Avelica-Gonzalez, who has been held in an immigrant detention center for the past three months, has two misdemeanor convictions that the Department of Homeland Security has cited as reason for making him a deportation priority. One is from two decades ago and another is almost a decade old. Over the City Attorney's objections, a judge has already vacated the latter misdemeanor conviction, a 2008 DUI where Avelica-Gonzalez was not represented by an attorney when he pled guilty, and did not fill out the waiver forms properly. "It was clear that [Avelica-Gonzalez] misunderstood what he was doing, yet [the City Attorney's office] resisted anyway," Avelica-Gonzalez's lawyer Steve Escovar told LAist. "The judge agreed with my position that he did not meaningfully understand the consequences of his plea and she vacated the conviction." According to Escovar, the City Attorney's Office intends to retry the case.

Avelica-Gonzalez's other misdemeanor conviction is emblematic of the way many undocumented residents can end up entangled with the justice system. In 1998, he took a plea for a misdemeanor conviction of receipt of stolen property after he was caught driving with someone else's license plate tag on his license plate. Thanks to the implementation of AB 60 on Jan. 1, 2015, undocumented Californians can now obtain driver's licenses despite their lack of legal status. However, back in 1998, Avelica-Gonzalez couldn't have legally registered a car in California. According to Escovar, if Avelica-Gonzalez had been properly advised of the immigration consequences at the time, he could have pled to a separate charge on the complaint for having false tags, which wouldn't have had the same immigration consequences.

"They can usually pick a charge to resolve a case, and he wasn't told that the other charges were more beneficial. Had he been aware of that and negotiated the alternate charge, he wouldn't be in this predicament now," Escovar explained. Avelica-Gonzalez's lawyers have unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the City Attorney's Office to let Avelica-Gonzalez "re-plea" to the related charge; instead, the City Attorney's Office issued a 77-page brief arguing against Avelica-Gonzalez's efforts to vacate the plea. Escovar also reports that the City Attorney's Office has assigned four different attorneys to fight Avelica-Gonzalez's motions.

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NDLON's Emi MacLean with members of the Avelica-Gonzalez family outside of an ICE office on the night of his arrest in February. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
Community groups and advocates have had difficulty understanding where the City Attorney, who has been decidedly progressive on a number of other issues and had previously spoken out against heavy-handed ICE tactics, is coming from in his aggressive stance on the Avelica-Gonzalez case.

"It seems unfathomable that this is the policy that the City Attorney is defending, based on the priorities he's publicly stated for the office," MacLean told LAist. "He is rightly expending significant resources to fight against wage theft for immigrant workers, for instance, and has been open to change policy on prosecuting street vendors. Why then is he expending massive resources preventing immigrants from benefiting from post-conviction relief for minor offenses?"

Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance, a charter school in Highland Park attended by two of Avelica-Gonzalez's daughters as well as several of their cousins, told LAist that he was "extremely surprised" by the City Attorney's stance. "Obviously, there's a class of individuals who the state legislature and the governor feel merit remedy because the system was rigged against them, and the governor signed it into law in January," Mireles said, referencing the section of California penal code that gives individuals who weren't knowingly advised of the potential adverse immigration consequences of their guilty pleas a legal avenue to vacate those convictions (this is called "post-conviction relief).

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"So, why is the City Attorney blocking this remedy?" Mireles asked. "Romulo qualifies."

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Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance, with one of Avelica-Gonzalez's daughters and Avelica-Gonzalez's grandson at a rally. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
Fredy Ceja, the communications director for Councilman Gil Cedillo (the Avelica-Gonzalez family lives in Cedillo's district), also expressed confusion over the City Attorney's position. "We're going to be having a conversation with the City Attorney about their position on this," Ceja told LAist. "We want to get Romulo back into the community and back with his family."

Members of the Highland Park chapter of Indivisible, an activist group, have also decried the City Attorney's stance, staging a protest over the issue outside of an LA County Bar Association reception last week where Feuer was being honored as “Prosecutor of the Year.”

“He should be protecting undocumented immigrants, not unjustly prosecuting them—and certainly not digging up 10-and-20-year-old charges,” Indivisible Highland Park spokesperson Scott Doyle said. “It’s frustrating to have City officials like [Mayor] Eric Garcetti and [Councilman] Gil Cedillo speaking on behalf of Romulo’s release, while at the same time the City Attorney is undermining that very cause.”

And much like how the heartrending story of Avelica-Gonzalez's arrest galvanized fears about coming deportations under the then newly-installed Trump administration, many worry that the City Attorney's decision to fight this case could be a bellwether for what other undocumented Angelenos seeking post-conviction relief may face.

Avelica-Gonzalez's case will be back in court Friday, with a hearing on his effort to vacate the two-decade-old misdemeanor plea. Family and community leaders plan to hold a press conference outside of Shortridge Foltz Courthouse tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m. before the hearing.

Update [Friday 2 p.m.]: No rulings were made during Friday's hearing. After a closed-door meeting with both Avelica-Gonzalez's counsel and lawyers from the City Attorney's Office, the judge announced that proceedings will resume on July 19.

With additional reporting by Leighton Woodhouse.