A local Navy veteran who faced deportation because of a domestic violence conviction will be able to stay in the United States, following a decision by a Merced County judge Thursday.
Merced County Judge Jeanne Schechter ruled Joaquin Sotelo wasn’t made aware of the consequences when he pleaded no contest to domestic violence charges in 2014.
Following an agreement reached between Sotelo and attorneys, the Iraq/Afghanistan combat vet was re-sentenced Thursday by Schechter to consecutive 364-day jail terms, which doesn’t trigger federal mandatory deportation proceedings.
Those terms were retroactive and expired with time served, leaving Sotelo a free man.
Sotelo isn’t completely safe from deportation. He must still appear on Dec. 12 in front of a federal immigration judge who could still deport him because of his previous state felony convictions, his attorneys said.
However, because of Judge Schechter’s decision in Merced County Superior Court on Thursday, Sotelo’s chances of being deported are less likely.
Sotelo celebrated the ruling with friends and family outside of the Merced courthouse.
“At any moment I knew that ... justice was going to be served and that I was going to be on my road to be an American citizen, because I am. I consider myself one,” Sotelo said. “I’ve proven (myself to this) country by serving this country, by putting my life at risk. Therefore I believe that we (veterans) deserve the right.”
Judge Schechter said she was “very happy” that prosecutors and Sotelo’s attorneys could come to the agreement. She also empathized with Sotelo being a veteran and immigrant, and thanked him for his service.
“I certainly hope (the federal government) will take more steps to resolve these issues,” Schechter said, referencing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s attempts to deport veterans who are documented or undocumented immigrants.
The judge stopped short of saying Sotelo’s former attorney, Dominic Falasco, gave him ineffective counsel when Falasco allegedly failed to inform Sotelo he would be deported if he pleaded no contest.
After the hearing, Sotelo said he always believed he would be vindicated.
“I believe in justice,” said Sotelo, claiming he is an example of how veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other issues can be rehabilitated from past drug and domestic violence issues. “We (veterans) go fight for our country. Our country supports us, that’s how it is.”
Sotelo said one of the first things he planned to do after Schechter’s ruling is get physical and mental treatment for the ordeals he’s had to face.
A native of Los Banos who now resides in Newman, Sotelo has lived in the U.S. since moving from Mexico at age 10.
He had been facing and fighting mandatory deportation by ICE after he pleaded to a domestic violence charge in 2014.
Sotelo said he was presented with the plea agreement by his attorney at the time, Falasco. He claimed Falasco didn’t tell him the plea and subsequent jail sentence would lead to mandatory deportation.
Falasco assured Sotelo multiple times that veterans won’t get deported, Sotelo said.
By law, attorneys are supposed to advise clients of their immigration rights and consequences, according to immigration law expert Katherine Brady, who testified Friday.
Sotelo’s attorneys also argued Falasco could have negotiated several other plea deals, like the one handed out by Schechter on Thursday, that would have let Sotelo, a green card holder, stay in the country.
Sotelo also testified Friday he believed Falasco was “high” on methamphetamine while previously representing him in court.
Falasco, who testified Friday, denied being on drugs during the time he represented Sotelo. He also claimed he didn’t know Sotelo’s immigration status, or that he was a veteran, despite court records that state otherwise.
Brady, however, said it was Falasco’s Sixth Amendment responsibility to ask and know Sotelo’s immigration status.
Falasco didn’t return requests for comment Thursday.
After serving his time for the 2014 felony conviction in state prison, Sotelo was immediately placed in ICE custody for about 15 months as he fought against removal.
While Sotelo was in ICE custody, his sister, Lilia Sotelo, said she contacted Hector Barajas. Barajas, a veteran, received national attention when he was deported, but won his right to come back and was naturalized last year, according to Vide en el valle.
Barajas then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided Sotelo and his attorneys support in his multi-year fight.
Sotelo said following Schechter’s ruling was also going to get his naturalization paperwork ready.
Some supporters wondered why he ever needed to go through the whole process in the first place, after serving the country during war.
“They should have made him an American (citizen) the day he came home from the war from Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Ralph Gonzales, a local Army veteran.