WASHINGTON (AP) - A Republican congressman asked the Obama administration Friday why it delayed for weeks the arrest of a registered sex offender who was living illegally in the U.S. and working for a Democratic senator.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of a House oversight subcommittee on homeland defense, asked the Homeland Security Department whether politics played any role in the decision not to arrest Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaletahim, 18, until after the Nov. 6 election.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that the department ordered immigration agents not to arrest Sanchez, an unpaid intern working for Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., until after Election Day. The department said it did not order such a delay and said it followed standard procedures. Menendez advocates aggressively for pro-immigration policies and was re-elected in November with 58 percent of the vote.
Chaffetz's inquiry was the first from Capitol Hill on the matter. He called the situation "disturbing" in a letter dated Thursday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Chaffetz asked that officials brief him and his staff by Jan. 3 and provide answers in writing.
Authorities in Hudson County, N.J., notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in early October that they suspected Sanchez was an illegal immigrant who was a registered sex offender and who may be eligible to be deported. ICE agents in New Jersey notified superiors at the Homeland Security Department because they considered it a potentially high profile arrest, and the department instructed them not to arrest Sanchez until after the November election, one U.S. official told the AP. ICE officials complained that the delay was inappropriate, but the department directed them several times not to act, the official said.
ICE agents arrested Sanchez on Dec. 6 in front of his home in New Jersey, two federal officials said. Sanchez, who entered the country on a now-expired visitor visa from Peru, is facing deportation and remains in custody. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of Sanchez's immigration case. Menendez said his staff learned of this on Dec. 10 but he personally found out about the case through AP's reporting.
During the final weeks of President George W. Bush's administration, ICE was criticized for delaying the arrest of President Barack Obama's aunt, who had ignored an immigration judge's order to leave the country several years earlier after her asylum claim was denied. She subsequently won the right to stay in the United States after an earlier deportation order.
In that earlier case, the Homeland Security Department imposed an unusual directive days before the election requiring high-level approval before federal agents nationwide could arrest fugitive immigrants including Zeituni Onyango, the half-sister of Obama's late father. The directive from ICE expressed concerns about "negative media or congressional interest," according to a copy of that directive obtained by AP. The department lifted the immigration order weeks later.
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