The U.S. Department of Homeland Security told Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials and New Jersey prosecutors to delay their deportation of an alleged sex offender because he interned for Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who was seeking re-election, the Associated Press reported.
Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta, 18, an immigrant from Peru, was arrested at his New Jersey home on Dec. 6. He reportedly had entered the U.S. on a currently expired visitor visa from his native country.
According to ICE officials and New Jersey prosecutors, however, law enforcement and government officials knew of Sanchez's violations well before Dec. 6. One ICE official said the agency was stonewalled by Homeland Security when it tried to take Sanchez into custody and deport him in October.
ICE authorities were told by DHS that Sanchez was a potentially high-profile arrest, and that they should wait until after the election to detain him, the report said.
Homeland Security spokesman, Peter Boogaard, said it's "categorically false" that his agency instructed government officials to postpone Sanchez's arrest. He maintained that ICE followed standard procedures in working with local prosecutors.
Because Sanchez was a minor when his crime was committed, his case file is sealed. Despite being forced to register as a sex offender, Sanchez's information is not available on the national database because of his age at the time of the crime.
Menendez has said that he was unaware of Menendez's immigration and sex offender statuses up until this week, when he was notified by the AP. Because Sanchez was a minor, Menendez said, he and his office would have had no way of knowing about the Peruvian's crime.
Ardently pro-immigration, Menendez said the Sanchez case illustrates the need for more comprehensive border reform.
“It does speak volumes about why we need comprehensive immigration reform,” the senator said. “I can’t know who is here to pursue the American dream versus who is here to do it damage if I cannot get people to come forth out of the shadows, go through criminal background checks and then determine who is here to pursue the dream and make sure that those who are here and have criminal backgrounds ultimately get deported.”
Sanchez had petitioned to stay in the country as part of President Barack Obama's policy that allows 1.7 million young illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. for two years while trying to find work. Sanchez was told by government officials that he was ineligible for the program because of his sex crime.
ICE was criticized in 2008 for delaying the deportation of Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who had ignored an immigration judge's order for her to leave the country two years after her asylum request was denied.
Onyango eventually won the right to stay on appeal, but not before DHS raised eyebrows by issuing an unusual directive requiring high-level deportation approval days before the election. That order was lifted weeks later.