US & Canada

Senator Robert Menendez intern 'in US illegally'

Senator Robert Menendez speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington 1 December 2011
Senator Robert Menendez won re-election last month with 59% of the vote

An intern for a New Jersey Democratic senator is facing deportation to Peru for staying in the US illegally.

Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta, 18, who worked as an unpaid intern, was arrested on 6 December.

Senator Robert Menendez, a backer of immigration reform, told MSNBC that his staff had been informed on Monday, and Mr Sanchez had been fired.

Mr Menendez denied any knowledge that Mr Sanchez was a registered sex offender, as reported by the AP.

The exact charge was unclear because he was prosecuted as a juvenile and court records are not publicly accessible, AP reported.

'Pursue the dream'

Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for Sen Menendez, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that the 18-year-old had interned in the senator's Newark office for two months. He had been accepted to Rutgers University but deferred his admission until January.

Rutgers, a state university, does not generally ask student's immigration status. Students who are in the US illegally pay the higher out-of-state tuition because they cannot prove they are legal resident of the state, the Star-Ledger reported.

In an interview with MSNBC, Mr Menendez said his staff does ask interns whether they are in the country legally - but cannot check to be sure.

"We certainly wouldn't have known through any background checks since he is a minor about any sex offender status," Sen Menendez added.

Mr Sanchez entered the country on a visitor visa that has since expired. He remains in immigration custody.

The Associated Press, citing an anonymous US official, reported the Department of Homeland Security asked immigration to hold off on Mr Sanchez's arrest until after election day,

Officials complained that the delay was inappropriate, but the homeland security directed them several times not to act, the official said.

A spokesman for the department said immigration officials followed procedures by working with local prosecutors before taking what he called "appropriate enforcement action", adding the AP report was "categorically false".

Sen Menendez said the arrest highlighted the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

"I can't know who is here to pursue the American dream versus who is here to do it damage if I cannot get people to come forth out of the shadows, go through criminal background checks and then determine who is here to pursue the dream," he said.

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