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Activist faces deportation after asylum claim rejected by Tucson judge

A federal immigration judge ordered the deportation of a well-known immigration and reproductive rights activist after rejecting her asylum claim during a Tuesday hearing in Tucson. 

Alejandra Pablos, 33, argued that she would a target for persecution in Mexico, where abortion remains largely illegal, and activists have reported death threats for their own work on the issue, she said. Pablos asked the court to intervene and protect her against deportation. 

However, following a three-hour hearing, Immigration Judge Thomas Michael O'Leary ruled that Pablos had not successfully met the guidelines for asylum under U.S. law, and refused to grant her a discretionary asylum claim because of her criminal history. 

Pablos testified on Tuesday that she was born in Nogales, Sonora, and that has lived in the United States since she was just six months old. Pablos grew up in Arizona and became a legal permanent resident, but two DUI convictions in 2007 and 2010 meant that she became a priority for enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and she was arrested and held in the Eloy Detention Center. 

Pablos said in court that her experience in Eloy "transformed" her, and that after she was released from ICE custody, with a requirement that she check-in with the agency every three months. "Detention was a crucial point in my life," Pablos told O'Leary.

Pablos decided to work on social justice projects, and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. In January, Pablos was detained during a demonstration at a Homeland Security facility in Virginia while leading chants. Prosecutors later dropped the charge of obstruction and trespassing, however, when she returned to Eloy for her check-in in March, she was detained. 

Pablos has said that she felt targeted and linked her arrest to those of other activists, including Ravi Ragbir, the head of the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, and others who have been arrested and deported after speaking out about their experiences. 

ICE disputed this claim. 

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ICE "does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make," said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for the agency in Phoenix. "Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate." 

"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. We will continue to target criminal aliens whenever and however they come to our attention. As ICE leadership has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement," she said. "All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and – if found removable by final order – removal from the United States." 

Pablos' case comes as ICE has abandoned the Obama-era policy of priority enforcement for an aggressive focus on all immigrants. At the same time increasing pressure from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was recently sacked, raised asylum denial rates nearly 20 percent from 2016 to 2018. 

In 2016, judges denied around 55 percent of claims, the next year, they denied 60 percent of claims, and in 2018, judges rejected 65 percent of claims, according to data from the Justice Department. 

After reviewing 75 exhibits and thousands of letters in support of Pablos, O'Leary nonetheless ruled that convictions in Pima and Maricopa County, including driving under influence meant that he would deny her asylum claim. 

O'Leary said that Pablos has "not shown genuine rehabilitation" and that while she may be well on her way, "even to greatness" in humanitarian causes, "right now her past haunts her."  

O'Leary's decision gives Pablos just a few avenues to stay in the country. She can appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, or she can ask Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey for a pardon. 

"I’ve been living here since I was a baby, and Arizona is the place where I’ve grown up and learned how to fight for our rights," Pablos said in a statement. "I will continue to fight for my right to stay here, to speak out about my story." 

"This is not the end of our fight; we will appeal this decision and urge Arizona Governor Ducey to issue a pardon for the arrests that led to my detention in the first place," Pablos said. "Getting a pardon from the Governor would significantly increase my chances to be able to continue to fight to stop my deportation and allow me to stay home with my family and community." 

In a strange wrinkle to the case, Hoyt Sam Hoyt, the lawyer representing the U.S. government and ICE, refused to identify himself to a reporters in the building's hallway, and directed TucsonSentinel.com and others to instead contact ICE's public affairs office. 

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Jacinta Gonzales, an organizer with activist group Mijente, said in a statement that she was "extremely saddened and angered" by the court decision to deport Pablos. 

"Alejandra is precisely the kind of person we need to push back against the Trump administration - someone who stands up for the rights of her community, her family, and herself. She is a recognized leader in the fight for reproductive rights and immigrant rights - the very reasons her life could be threatened if deported," Gonzales said. "Her case is also an example of the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken asylum law, and their obsession with deporting as many immigrants as possible." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Alejandra Pablos prepares to speak to supporters outside of federal court in Tucson.

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