Crime & Courts

Sen. Thom Tillis claims slayings suspect wrongly got deportation amnesty in 2013

Model Mirjana Puhar, a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” was one of three people killed in February on Norris Avenue. Two men have been charged with murder in connection with her killing.
Model Mirjana Puhar, a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” was one of three people killed in February on Norris Avenue. Two men have been charged with murder in connection with her killing. GETTY FOR NYLON

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and another Republican leader charged Friday that the suspect in four Charlotte-area slayings last month received amnesty from deportation in 2013 despite a marijuana arrest and known ties to gangs.

Four first-degree murder charges were filed against Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez in connection with two separate shootings in February. Police say the 19-year-old Charlotte man knew his victims and that the killings were drug-related. He faces the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

In a statement late Friday afternoon, Tillis of Huntersville and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa questioned whether Rangel-Hernandez should have been deported long before the killings occurred. Both Republicans are opponents of the Obama administration’s immigration policies.

Rangel-Hernandez’s case has gained national attention because one of those killed was Mirjana Puhar, a recent contestant on the “America’s Next Top Model” reality TV show.

In March 2012, Rangel-Hernandez was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana charge in Mecklenburg County, which put him in the pipeline to be deported. According to public records, the drug charge was dismissed in August 2012. His record does not show other charges.

In December 2013, Tillis and Grassley say, Rangel-Hernandez’s deportation process stopped when he was approved for a two-year amnesty under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

The program was set up for undocumented immigrants who entered the country before June 2007 when they were 16 or younger. Those approved for DACA received a two-year work permit and amnesty from deportation.

DACA started three months after Rangel-Hernandez’s arrest in 2012. As of June this year, the federal government had granted protected status to some 581,000 applicants and denied about 24,000.

The senators say unnamed “whistleblowers” have told them that federal immigration officials approved Rangel-Hernandez’s deferred status despite having “full knowledge that he was a known gang member.”

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Tillis, a committee member, released a letter they’d sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asking for statistics and DACA policies involving applicants with criminal backgrounds.

Though she is not familiar with the details of Rangel-Hernandez’s immigration case, Charlotte immigration lawyer Cynthia Aziz said that someone with a pending drug charge, even a misdemeanor, could not go forward with a DACA application until the criminal case was resolved.

In Rangel-Hernandez’s case, the charge was dismissed more than a year before Tillis says his DACA status was granted.

While a dismissed misdemeanor would not ordinarily be a red flag, Aziz said, gang ties certainly would be.

“It would be unfair to deny the (DACA) benefit based on a charge that never went to court,” Aziz said. “There’s no way an immigration judge could have known what the future would be for this young man.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police could not immediately provide information on what they knew about any gang activity involving Rangel-Hernandez. Tillis did not disclose details of how his sources know gang activity existed and had been ignored. (Update: Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said their source is from a law enforcement database that shows gang activity, and was vetted by Judiciary Committee staff.)

Aziz said immigration and Homeland Security officials conduct gang background checks for DACA applicants.

She said she has one client whose immigration case is being held up while authorities investigate his tattoos.

“They’re very keen on tattoos,” she said. “If they find any taint of gang activity, the cases are held up and put under intensive review.” Researcher Maria David contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095