A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutor could face criminal charges for allegedly forging court documents in a 2008 deportation proceeding against a Mexican construction worker.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating possible criminal charges against a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prosecutor accused of forging court documents in a 2008 deportation proceeding against a Mexican construction worker.

Recent court filings in a 2014 civil-rights lawsuit by Ignacio Lanuza reveal that Jonat M. Love, formerly an assistant chief counsel for ICE in Seattle, is under investigation for his handling of Lanuza’s removal proceedings in Immigration Court. The quasi-judicial administrative process handles immigration and refugee issues and is overseen by the Department of Justice.

“This case presents the issue of whether a federal official may … be held accountable for indisputably corrupt actions taken in order to strip a noncitizen of his right to a full and fair hearing in immigration proceedings,” wrote Lanuza’s attorneys from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Lanuza, they argued, “suffered through almost five years of unwarranted, expensive, and traumatic immigration proceedings as a result of a crude forgery on the part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. In his lawsuit, Lanuza alleges he was the victim of a malicious prosecution and that Love deprived him of his right to due process.

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He is asking for $500,000 in damages.

Love’s Seattle criminal-defense attorneys did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment. Love is no longer employed by ICE as a result of the forgery allegations.

Lanuza was set to be deported to Mexico before his lawsuit alleging misconduct on the part of the ICE office here. After the allegations against Love in Lanuza’s immigration case were revealed and Lanuza’s case reopened, he was granted legal permanent resident status in the U.S. last year, according to court documents.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman recently stayed all proceedings in Lanuza’s civil lawsuit pending a decision on whether Love will be charged by federal prosecutors in Seattle.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office had said it expected to decide by Dec. 2 whether to charge Love but asked for an extension until Jan. 25, according to court documents.

Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE, would confirm only that Love is no longer employed at the agency. She said policy precludes the agency from confirming or denying the existence of internal investigations or commenting on pending litigation.

In his lawsuit and pleadings, Lanuza identifies himself as a mason and construction worker who is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children, ages 5 and 12. He says he has been living in the country for more than 10 years, which could make him eligible for resident status were he to have applied.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin from Spokane, who is defending ICE against the civil lawsuit, disputes Lanuza’s claim and questions his eligibility to be in the country, despite his current status.

Arrested with a gun

Lanuza came to ICE’s attention after he was arrested by Seattle police at a loud party on June 26, 2008. According to police reports, he was seen by officers sitting on a bar stool in a shack at the rear of a home in South Seattle, holding a handgun.

The gun turned out to be stolen, and Lanuza was arrested on charges of possession of a stolen firearm and obstruction and booked into the King County Jail, where he reportedly acknowledged he was in the country illegally, according to court documents.

Lanuza pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of carrying a firearm with the intent to intimidate and was given a suspended sentence.

Lanuza’s arrest and acknowledgment that he was in the U.S. illegally triggered what ICE refers to as “removal” proceedings, in which immigrants who are here illegally appear before an immigration judge to determine if there is any reason they should not be deported. In Lanuza’s case, he claimed he had been in the U.S. continuously for more than a decade, but acknowledged he had been turned away twice in two days at the border crossing in Nogales, Ariz.

A lawsuit seeks $500,000 in damages for Ignacio Lanuza-Torres because an alleged forgery in a deportation case cost him years of courtroom battles and uncertainty over his future. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)  (Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press)
A lawsuit seeks $500,000 in damages for Ignacio Lanuza-Torres because an alleged forgery in a deportation case cost him years of courtroom battles and uncertainty over his future. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)  (Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press)

Love, a seasoned ICE prosecutor, was assigned the case. In the meantime, Lanuza was released on bond.

“Document tampering”

At a hearing in May 2009, Love told the immigration judge that Lanuza had signed a waiver when he was stopped at the border in Nogales in 2000, which would have made him ineligible to ask that his removal to Mexico be canceled. Love presented the court with a copy of the waiver, called an I-826 form.

That form became key to Lanuza’s appeal and Love’s downfall.

Lanuza said he could not recall signing the form. However, an immigration judge in 2010 found that, based on Love’s representation and the form, Lanuza was not eligible to avoid his removal because he had not been in the U.S. for 10 years continuously.

Lanuza appealed, but the Board of Immigration Appeals — again relying on the I-826 form — ordered him removed to Mexico.

In December 2011, Lanuza hired a new attorney, Hilary Han, to represent him in an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Han, in reviewing the file, “found irregularities” in the I-826 form, according to court pleadings.

Han hired a forensic document examiner and discovered the form was a forgery. He then returned to the board and sought another hearing.

The board, citing “the seriousness and particularity of the allegations,” found Lanuza had “provided evidence indicating that the [I-826] submitted by the [Department of Homeland Security] may not be a complete and accurate document,” and that it contained “anachronisms and other hallmarks which may suggest document tampering.”

The most obvious evidence that the document was not legitimate was that Homeland Security and ICE had not existed in 2000, and the I-826 form that Love said Lanuza had signed was not in use at that time.

With the form discredited, the board granted Lanuza lawful permanent residence status.

Extensive pleadings in Lanuza’s lawsuits show that he has fought an uphill battle in attempting to sue ICE and Love.

Pechman, the federal judge, dismissed Love as a defendant in Lanuza’s lawsuit in compliance with 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case law. In her ruling, she challenged the appellate court over its narrow interpretation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sets out when federal agents can be sued for civil-rights violations by noncitizens.

“The court agrees with Mr. Lanuza” that a civil-rights remedy “should be available to him,” she wrote in an order last spring. “Nevertheless, the court finds the Ninth Circuit’s opinion … forecloses such a remedy,” Pechman wrote.

Pechman’s ruling means Love cannot be held civilly liable for what happened to Lanuza.

However, Pechman has allowed Lanuza’s lawsuit to move forward on a broader claim against the government, of malicious prosecution.

In the meantime, Lanuza has filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit, asking the judges to re-examine their previous ruling limiting civil-rights claims by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

The lawsuit is being defended by a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane, because the Seattle office acknowledged the potential for a conflict of interest.