Illegal alien or asylum seeker? Uncertain status lets convicted Haitian stay

March 07, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Federal officials say Richard Charles broke the law when he came into this country. But, so far, the more laws he breaks, the longer he gets to stay.

The 29-year-old native of Haiti was convicted on fraud and attempted theft charges in Howard County Circuit Court yesterday. In June, he was found guilty of a fourth-degree sex offense.

Having lived in the United States since 1989, he will likely spend more time here -- in jail.

And even after he's out of jail, he might get to stay in this country. That's because the justice system that decided he was a felon has yet to decide if he is an illegal immigrant or a political refugee.

Charles, who has been living in Columbia for at least two years, has applied for political asylum, his attorney said. So, his trouble with the law notwithstanding, he can still be granted the right to live in this country, immigration officials said.

"It surprised me the first 8,000 times I heard it. I'm outraged, I can't be surprised," said Scip Garling, director of research for the American Federation for Immigration Reform. "Asylum has become a back door for immigrants escaping deportation."

Yesterday, after deliberating about nine hours, the Howard County jury concluded that Charles had tried to bilk Sentry Insurance Co. of $431 when he filed a fraudulent insurance claim in April of 1995, according to testimony in the case.

Assistant State's Attorney Bernard Taylor said that Charles -- using the identity of another person, Jeanky Georges -- submitted a falsified repair bill to the insurance company after he was involved in an accident. That bill, actually from a previous accident, overestimated the damage to the car, according to charging documents in the case.

But, in court, Charles testified that Georges, his cousin, had committed the crime. Charles said he did not know where Georges lived. Prosecutors -- using photographs from drivers' licenses issued to Charles and Georges -- claim that Georges does not exist, that he is just an alias for Charles.

In June, Charles was acquitted of child abuse and other charges in one case but faced 11 additional sex-offense charges in relation to allegations that he fondled five Columbia-area women while posing as a professional photographer.

After prosecutors lost many of their key witnesses -- the women -- before the case went to trial, Charles entered an Alford plea, meaning he conceded the state had enough evidence to convict him, but he maintained his innocence. He was sentenced to 164 days in jail -- time that he had already served awaiting trial.

Two factors keep Charles in this country -- the desire to have him serve more jail time and his request for political asylum.

By law, immigrants fleeing persecution in their home countries can seek safe haven in the United States. To stay, they must prove they are in danger in their home country.

Only those immigrants who are deemed a danger to the United States or have been convicted of an aggravated felony -- a violent crime or fraud exceeding $10,000 -- are automatically denied asylum, according to the law and immigration officials.

Asylum process criticized

In 1995, 150,000 people applied for political asylum -- about double the number that applied five years before, according to Garling's group. Garling, whose politically conservative organization wants to tighten immigration laws, says the asylum process is a critically flawed part of the system.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service could not confirm the 150,000 figure yesterday, but officials there dispute that immigrants are abusing the system. About 20 percent of all applicants during the past five years have been granted asylum, said John Shallman, a spokesman for the INS in Baltimore.

"Each case is weighed on its own merits," Shallman said. But, he added, Charles' convictions would certainly not help his asylum application, which was made on the basis that he had been persecuted in Haiti, where he was a photojournalist.

"It's not a plus. We don't look for that in all our [asylum applicants]," Shallman said.

Whether or not the United States allows him to stay here, Charles can't be deported until his asylum process is completed, which immigration officials say can take at least six months and Garling's group says can take much longer.

The consideration of Charles' application will not start for months because State's Attorney Marna McLendon wants to send Charles to jail -- punishment that will be paid for by American taxpayers.

'Incarceration appropriate'

"I feel a period of incarceration is appropriate, and the only way to do that is to do it in the United States," McLendon said in an interview yesterday.

Just deporting Charles could mean he was let off easily for the crimes he committed, she contends.

Said Taylor, who prosecuted Charles, "We will recommend [jail time] whether he is legal or illegal, black, white, green, purple or striped. Yes, it is an expense. It was an expense to prosecute him [but] he should be punished for the crime."

When Charles is sentenced on May 23, he could receive maximum penalties of 15 years for the two charges the jury convicted him of yesterday. Taylor said state guidelines -- which are voluntary guides for judges -- call for Charles to receive up to four months in jail.

For Howard County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, the fact that Charles is allegedly illegally in the United States and has been convicted of two felonies, but still has not been deported, is befuddling.

"That seems crazy," Drown said. "It seems like we tie our own hands for some reason. This guy's kind of coming in and abusing the system, big time."

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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