Criminal Justice

Fake asylum claims lead to federal prison sentence for immigration lawyer

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An Illinois lawyer known for helping Syrian and Iraqi immigrants win asylum received a 15-month federal prison sentence Wednesday, after being found guilty of making false claims in immigration court.

Robert DeKelaita, who with his family fled Iraq’s Baath regime when he was 10 years old, allegedly lied in court documents about clients being raped, wrongfully arrested or experiencing religious persecution from Iraqi Islamic extremists, the Chicago Tribune reports.

A Chicago federal jury in May 2016 convicted DeKelaita of four perjury and immigration fraud charges; he was acquitted on a fifth fraud charge. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly later reversed all the charges except for conspiracy, according to the Tribune.

The defendant didn’t appear to make a lot of money from his scheme, Kennelly said. Rather, it seemed that DeKelaita of Glenview thought it was justifiable to do whatever was needed to get the people into the United States.

“I’m not sure whether that’s aggravating or mitigating. Maybe it’s some of both,” Kennelly said. Prosecutors sought a sentence of 46 to 57 months of imprisonment, according to court papers (PDF), while the defense asked for probation (PDF).

Two interpreters who worked with DeKelaita were charged with purposely misleading clients and adding testimony that clients did not say. Adam Benjamin of Skokie pleaded guilty to fraud and received a six-month federal sentence, the Tribune reports, and the government agreed to defer prosecution of Yousif Yousif, also of Skokie.

DeKelaita plans to appeal, his attorney Michael B. Nash told the ABA Journal. Supporters, who claim that DeKelaita was wrongfully convicted, have established the Stand with Robert Facebook page. In 2016, he received an interim suspension from the Illinois Attorney Registration & Discipline Commission.

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