CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte high school student Gus Zamudio, whose immigration case became a focal point in the local debate over the crackdown against undocumented immigrants, is back in his native Mexico.
Zamudio, 18, landed Thursday night in Mexico City where extended family was waiting, according to friends and his attorney. His departure – on a one-way ticket out of Atlanta – comes about a month before he would have graduated from Northwest School of the Arts.
He was taken into immigration custody shortly after his Feb. 25 arrest on charges of embezzling almost $3,000 from the Harris Teeter store in Myers Park where he worked. That felony charge later was pleaded down by Zamudio's criminal attorneys. But while the plea deal allowed Zamudio to avoid formal deportation, it could not keep him in the country long enough to graduate with his classmates. He has been held in Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., 140 miles south of Atlanta, for more than two months.
Zamudio came to the country from Mexico with his family when he was 4 or 5. Because he was granted a "voluntary departure" in lieu of deportation, and because he left the country before he turned 18 and a half, Zamudio can immediately apply for a visa that would allow him to legally re-enter the country.
Given the current climate, there are no guarantees the request would be approved, said Marty Rosenbluth, the teenager's volunteer immigration attorney.
His detention led to rallies by friends and supporters who reimbursed Harris Teeter and raised money and awareness in hopes of keeping Zamudio in the country. Supporters of the country's tougher immigration policy say Zamudio lost his right to be in the country when he committed a crime.
Under the Obama administration, Zamudio likely would have avoided immigration detention or the forced departure until he was convicted of a crime, and his plea bargain might have kept him in the country altogether, experts say. But since taking office, the Trump administration has cast a wider net – seizing undocumented immigrants accused of breaking the law. In some cases, their crimes have been being in the country illegally.
Shortly after Zamudio's arrest, a spokesman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, said the agency was "focused on identifying, arresting and removing public safety threats, such as criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation's immigration laws."
When he last visited with his client last week, Rosenbluth said Zamudio "was really desperate to get out of ... what's a polite way of saying 'hell hole'?"
He called Zamudio's case "egregious."
"Here's this kid, you know, a kid in high school. He made a mistake, certainly. But that didn't make him a threat to public safety or a terrorist," Rosenbluth said. "What's really egregious is that there's nothing we can do under the law. He had no options.
"Was I able to keep Gus here so he would have graduated from high school and lived happily ever after? No. But we got the little justice we could eke out for him given the laws that we have."
On the ICE website, Zamudio's status already had been changed Friday morning.