Updated at: 02/13/2013 11:08 AM
By ALICIA A. CALDWELL
(AP) WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate panel Wednesday that she was not consulted about the case of an illegal immigrant and registered sex offender before he was arrested in December.
Napolitano said she learned about the case against Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta after The Associated Press wrote about it last year.
Sanchez, a registered sex offender in New Jersey, was working as an unpaid intern for Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., when he was identified by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as an illegal immigrant eligible for deportation.
According to internal ICE documents provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, agents were ready to arrest Sanchez in late October but were ordered to delay the arrest after superiors were told that the case could generate "significant Congressional and media interest." Sanchez was arrested in early December.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case, told the AP last year that the Department of Homeland Security ordered that the arrest be delayed until after the November election. DHS has denied the allegation.
On Wednesday, Napolitano did not address the specific reasons that led officials to delay Sanchez’s arrest. She said the real issue was why Sanchez, 18, was not arrested by federal authorities in 2010, when ICE was first notified of his sex offense.
Sanchez, who came to the United States on a visitor visa good for six months, was arrested by New Jersey law enforcement on in October 2009 on state charges of aggravated sexual assault. He was later found to have violated the law and sentenced to probation and required to register as a sex offender.
According to the internal ICE documents, local prosecutors in New Jersey notified ICE about Sanchez sometime between March and May 2010. The documents show that the officer who received the notification determined that because Sanchez was a juvenile at the time of the offense, the case needed "additional research to determine removability." The case was put aside "in order to focus on high-priority cases that were ready for immediate action," the documents show.
"The more significant issue was what happened in those two years and why wasn’t the removal made then," Napolitano told the Senate panel.
Sanchez has been released from immigration detention and is facing deportation. He has declined to comment on his case.
Menendez said he was not aware of Sanchez’s arrest record or his immigration status until after he was arrested.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)