Zhao case raises questions about difficulties immigrants face

Roanoke immigration lawyer discusses changes in challenges

The case of former Virginia Tech student Yunsong Zhao is raising questions about the difficulties immigrants face in America.

A Montgomery County judge dismissed a felony gun charge Monday against the 20-year-old but he remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

10 News spoke with immigration attorney Jennifer Dean Tuesday about how difficult it is for legal immigrants to navigate the justice system.

She said it’s frustrating that ICE has the ability to take immigrants into custody when they’re accused of a crime, before there’s been a ruling.

“Just because you're found not guilty, just because a charge is dismissed, does not mean you're free from immigration consequences,” she said. “The burden is on the individual to prove their eligibility and their innocence.”

In her experience, federal authorities often step in.

“There's still just a lot of leeway and extra discretion that comes into play, especially with firearm offenses that give federal officials the ability to exercise discretion in ways that go beyond a guilt or innocence outcome,” said.

Zhao has been in custody for nearly eight months while awaiting his trial on a felony gun charge.

Dean said, for immigrants, there can be additional federal oversight of local crimes, including evaluating the threat of terrorism.

"When you have a crime committed or someone who's simply accused of a crime, immigration officials are going to look at those facts, look at the evidence in the record, and they undertake several different analyses, to see whether, independent of the state proceedings, that there's going to be immigration consequences,” she said.

That’s the case for Zhao. He’s scheduled to have another immigration hearing Thursday in Arlington. His attorneys said he hopes to stay in the U.S. but would need a new visa.

Dean said the challenges immigrants face are increasing under President Donald Trump’s administration and there are frequent policy changes.

“We're operating in one of the most difficult, harsh environments politically and through policy that we've seen in many decades,” she said.

For Zhao, there could be many outcomes. His attorneys said a judge could grant him asylum, he could get a new student visa to pursue a law degree or he could be deported to China.

The number of visas the U.S. is issuing, including the one Zhao had, is decreasing. It’s dropped by nearly 10 percent in the first year of the Trump administration.

A Virginia Tech spokesman said the university has no comment on the outcome of Zhao’s case. At the time of this posting, 10 News has not heard back about a request for comment from the commonwealth attorney’s office.

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