Charlotte high school student Gus Zamudio will be leaving the country. Next week, a judge will decide whether the senior at Northwest School of the Arts will return to his native Mexico with a high school diploma.
On March 28, an attorney for Zamudio will ask a federal immigration judge in Georgia to release Zamudio from federal custody long enough for the 18-year-old to finish classes at Northwest. Zamudio would then voluntarily return to Mexico.
Zamudio has been held in the high-security Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., for about a month. He was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Charlotte shortly after his arrest in late February on a felony charge that he embezzled more than $2,900 from the Harris Teeter in Myers Park where he worked.
Zamudio’s seizure is part of a crackdown under President Donald Trump on undocumented immigrants. Under the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants were deported after being convicted of crimes. Now, they are being jailed and processed for deportation after only an arrest.
On Tuesday, his attorneys in the embezzling case entered a guilty plea in Zamudio’s absence for a reduced charge of misdemeanor larceny. Friends, family and teachers have raised money to repay Harris Teeter in full, the lawyers said.
Afterward, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said the plea agreement offered Zamudio is consistent with how cases involving nonviolent, first-time offenders are handled, and had nothing to do with the teen’s immigration status.
Mecklenburg District Judge Alicia Brooks granted Zamudio what is known as “a prayer for judgment continued.” That’s a type of legal limbo between a conviction and an acquittal. Put another way, it’s a conviction without a sentence – if Zamudio doesn’t break the law again.
“This certainly helps,” said Zamudio’s immigration attorney, Marty Rosenbluth of Hillsborough. “Not having a felony on his head will make this a lot easier in immigration court.”
But the plea agreement likely won’t keep Zamudio in the country. Rosenbluth said Tuesday that his client’s return to Mexico is all but certain now.
“We don’t really have anything to apply for. We’d lose before we began to fight,” he said. “People just don’t realize how badly broken our immigration system really is.”
Rosenbluth said that next week he will ask an immigration judge to approve a “voluntary departure” agreement that would free Zamudio for 120 days before he would be required to leave the country. Said Rosenbluth: “It would give him enough time to graduate and say goodbye.”
A diploma would give Zamudio better job prospects in Mexico, Rosenbluth said. The voluntary departure instead of a deportation would improve his chances of being allowed back in the country legally in the future.
“He has accepted responsibility for what’s happened,” the attorney said. “Now he’s trying to get past this and build a life for himself.”
Whether the judge will accept the plan is unclear. Earlier this month, Zamudio’s bond request was turned down.
Zamudio’s case has become one of the focal points of a community-wide debate on Trump’s stepped-up immigration policy, which has led to hundreds of immigrants being taken into custody for possible deportation. Supporters of the president’s efforts say they are helping make the country safer. Critics say the government is punishing longtime residents such as Zamudio, who came to America with his family as a young child.
Zamudio’s criminal hearing in Mecklenburg District Court on Tuesday took a matter of minutes. While defense attorneys Rob Heroy and Jonathan Hipps talked with the judge about the terms of the plea agreement, a Spanish translator explained the proceedings to Maria Aguilar, Zamudio’s mother.
Given a chance to speak, Aguilar told Judge Brooks in Spanish that Zamudio had been highly active at Northwest, and had never done anything like this before.
“I don’t think my son took the money,” she said.