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Why some immigrants with criminal convictions aren't deported

A man now identified as Charly Leundeu Keunang was sentenced to 15 years in prison in connection with a bank robbery in Thousand Oaks in 2000.
A man now identified as Charly Leundeu Keunang was sentenced to 15 years in prison in connection with a bank robbery in Thousand Oaks in 2000.
Courtesy of Ventura County Sheriff's Office

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Two years before he was shot by police on Skid Row, the man now identified as Cameroonian immigrant Charly Leundeu Keunang was released from prison and was up for deportation.

But unlike other immigrants convicted of violent offenses, Keunang was not deported, but rather remained in the United States. The reasons are complicated and unusual, but Keunang is not alone among convicted persons who face ouster but wind up staying for a variety of reasons.

Defense attorney Steve Cron remembers Keunang as the man he defended 15 years ago. He especially remembers the crime, a violent bank robbery in Thousand Oaks.
“It was a takeover robbery where guns were used, and there were three people involved, and there was a high speed chase," said Cron, who back then was appointed by the court to defend the suspect who went by the name Charley Saturmin Robinet and claimed to be a French citizen. "It just struck me that if ever there were a case where someone would get deported because of a felony conviction, this would be the type of crime that would lead to deportation.”
Cron was shocked to learn this week that his former client wound up on Skid Row after his release in 2013. Criminals convicted of violent offenses typically are deported once they serve their time. But there are exceptions.

Some countries — for example Cuba — don't accept U.S. deportees because of a lack of diplomatic relations. Others have inconsistent acceptance policies. Some immigrants are deemed stateless if the nation he or she was born in no longer exists.

And sometimes U.S. officials simply run into roadblocks.

“If the federal government cannot get travel documents for that person and does not get the cooperation of the foreign government accepting or issuing travel documents for that person, then the United States is essentially stuck with that person," said Bill Ong Hing, who teaches immigration law at San Francisco State University.
Keunang's case was a complicated one. French officials initially agreed to take him back — but then discovered he was a citizen of Cameroon.

U.S. officials tried to deport him to Cameroon, but say they received no cooperation from the Cameroonian government when they tried to obtain travel documents for him.

Had to let him go

In the end, they let him go. A 2001 Supreme Court decision, Zadvydas v. Davis, limits the amount of time U.S. immigration officials can detain a foreign national with a final deportation order if there is no country that will accept them.

"Per the Supreme Court ruling, after 180 days of detention, if the actual removal cannot occur within the reasonably foreseeable future, ICE must release the individual," wrote U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice in a statement.

The Zadvydas case involved two plaintiffs, a Lithuanian-German man and a man from Cambodia. Both had committed deportable offenses in the United States, but the U.S. could not get clearance from foreign governments to deport them.

"The Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government could not hold or detain those individuals indefinitely," Hing said, "and had to at least give them a right to a hearing to prove that they either were not a danger to the community, or were a danger to the community."

Federal officials say, in that case, the bar for keeping people detained is very high, and that convicted criminals are routinely released under the Zadvydas rule.

The practice has drawn its share of critics, including several Republican lawmakers who have tried to overturn it.

In Keunang's case, he wound up on the street, after initially landing in a halfway house once he was released from ICE custody in November 2013.

Non-deportable immigrants who are released may apply for work permits, according to ICE. Keunang applied for one, federal officials confirmed, but his request was turned down.

Keunang was on an order of supervised release from ICE, in addition to his probation. He was next scheduled for a check-in March 5.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a misspelled version of Charly Leundeu Keunang's first name, which was shared with KPCC by the county coroner's office. The coroner has since sent out a correction, and the story has been updated accordingly.

This story has been updated.