Immigration Lawyer Gets Federal Prison Time for Fake Asylum Claims
After two days of a bloody overthrow in 1963, thousands lay dead in the streets of Iraq and Saddam Hussein was on his way to taking over the country.
Robert W. DeKelaita, who grew up in the shadow of the new regime, left the country with his family when he was a child. He went on to become an immigration lawyer near Chicago, focusing his practice on helping Iraqis and others win asylum.
A lifetime later, DeKelaita now faces 15 months in prison for falsifying asylum claims. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly had problems with the sentencing, saying DeKelaita didn't get rich off the scheme but appeared to do "whatever he needed to do to get those people into the country."
"I'm not sure whether that's aggravating or mitigating," the judge said. "Maybe it's some of both."
Aggravating and Mitigating
DeKelaita said nothing during the two-hour hearing, but the packed courtroom said much about the case. Dozens of relatives and supporters have defended him in court papers and publicly.
"During the trial the Court observed an unusual number of people in courtroom who were by no means disinterested," attorney Michael B. Bush said in a sentencing report. "They were Assyrian Christians, most of whom fled Iraq in the last twenty years."
DeKelaita is an immigrant and an Assyrian Christian, too, his lawyer said, and he dedicated his time to serving the community in his practice and his church.
"Whatever else may be said about the defendant, it would be unfair to conclude he was motivated by greed," Bush wrote. "He was motivated to help people who were escaping horrible situations or who wanted to be reunited with their families."
False Stories of Persecution
Prosecutor Andrianna D. Kastanek told the court a much different story. In her sentencing memorandum, she said DeKelaita defrauded the government in a sophisticated scheme of lies.
"The false asylum stories included fabricated tales of rape, murder, torture, kidnappings, bombings and other forms of persecution that defendant created from whole cloth," she wrote.
The prosecutor said that DeKelaita recruited others in the scheme, including lying interpreters and even a bribed government worker. This went on for a decade, the attorney told the judge.
Ultimately, the judge denied both the government's and the defendant's proposed sentences and gave DeKelaita a mid-range sentence. DeKelaita plans to appeal.
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