There will be no homecoming for Gus Zamudio, and the Charlotte high school senior will not be graduating with his classmates at Northwest School of the Arts. Instead, the 18-year-old will be leaving the country within 30 days.
An immigration judge in Georgia ruled Tuesday that Zamudio must exit the country under a “voluntary departure” order as soon as he can pay for a plane ticket to Mexico City.
Zamudio’s attorney, Marty Rosenbluth of Raleigh, said the court’s decision represents a small victory for his client, who has faced deportation since his February arrest for embezzling $2,900 from the Harris Teeter store on Providence Road where he worked.
That felony charge was pleaded down to a misdemeanor last week, and a Mecklenburg judge granted Zamudio a prayer for judgment, which under North Carolina law is not considered a guilty plea.
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Tuesday morning, with nine friends and supporters of Zamudio in the courtroom, the immigration judge rejected Rosenbluth’s request that the teen be freed on bond and allowed to remain in the country for 120 days so he could graduate from Northwest.
Instead, the judge says Zamudio has until April 27 to voluntarily depart, and he will remain in high-security Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., for however long it takes him to finalize travel plans to Mexico City, where he has family. Friends say Zamudio came to the country with his family when he was 4 or 5.
Because of his age and the removal of the felony charge from his criminal record, Rosenbluth says Zamudio can apply immediately for a visa to return to the country. There are no guarantees he will get it, however. For now, the attorney said he is working to get Zamudio released and on a plane as soon as possible.
If he had been deported, Zamudio would have had virtually no chance of being allowed to legally get back into the country. Instead of having the chance to join family in Mexico City, he would have been “dumped at the border, where he would have faced the risk of being kidnapped, assaulted, robbed, so many things,” Rosenbluth said.
“Given his circumstances, I think we did OK. Even though it’s not a 100 percent victory, it’s a lot better than the deportation option.”
His arrest and seizure by federal officials has set off a debate throughout Charlotte over the crackdown on undocumented immigrants by President Donald Trump. Under the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants were deported after being convicted of crimes. Now, they are being jailed and processed for deportation after only an arrest.
Supporters of Zamudio say he was a successful Charlotte high school student forced to leave the country after one mistake. Critics say the 18-year-old forfeited any right to be here after he took a significant amount of money from Harris Teeter.
Classmate Anna Butler, who has roused community support for Zamudio, again made the 400-mile drive from Charlotte to be on hand for her friend’s bond hearing.
“It’s disappointing, but I think something good is coming out of this,” she said by phone on the return trip. “He’ll be able to get out of that place. It’s such a cruel place for him to be.”
After the hearing, Zamudio, clad in a navy blue inmate jump suit, wept when he met with Butler and fellow classmate Mikaela Craft. Butler says her friend’s spirits improved during the conversation. So did hers.
“We sat there and told him we still loved him, and how this doesn’t change anything. We still think he’s a good person at heart. He just made a mistake, that’s all,” Butler said.
“It was really comforting to see him and tell him stuff. It’s so much harder on the phone. To see his face and tell him we’re still here for him … it was just really important to be able to do that.”