Anti-illegal immigration groups slammed the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly waiting to arrest an illegal immigrant intern working for a prominent U.S. senator until after the election -- though the department "categorically" denied the allegation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta, 18, in front of his home in New Jersey on Dec. 6. One official involved in the case told the Associated Press that the DHS told agents not to arrest the individual, who was employed as an unpaid intern for Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, until after Election Day.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale called the claim "categorically false."
"ICE followed standard process in coordination with its federal partners and local prosecutors before taking appropriate enforcement action," he said in a statement.
But watchdog groups were not so convinced, with one calling for a separate investigation.
"The Department of Homeland Security knew that Luis Sanchez Zavaleta was both an illegal alien and a registered sex offender as early as October," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Nevertheless, high ranking DHS officials placed electoral politics ahead of public safety and the law, when they instructed ICE agents not to arrest Mr. Sanchez until after the 2012 elections."
Stein went on to say the account would "ratify charges by career ICE agents that the Obama administration is recklessly disregarding immigration law."
Stein called for a "full and independent investigation" into the case, "based on the allegations of the ICE officers and strong evidence that DHS leadership interfered in a criminal arrest for political reasons."
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, went so far as to call for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's and Menendez' resignation.
"Menendez's new term in the U.S. Senate is illegitimate now that we know he would have likely lost his reelection bid if the White House had not protected the illegal alien sex offender intern from arrest before Election Day," he said in a statement.
It's unclear whether the arrest would have made a difference. Menendez won re-election with a comfortable 58 percent of the vote.
Menendez' office has meanwhile distanced itself from the intern.
Spokeswoman Tricia Enright said that he was an unpaid college intern in their Newark office for two months.
"No staff member responsible for managing the internship program had reason to believe, based on their interview process, that Sanchez had any criminal background or immigration issues. Clearly Mr. Sanchez sought to deceive our staff," she said in a statement.
Enright said Sanchez' "relationship with our office immediately ended" as soon as the senator's office was informed of his arrest. She said Menendez is "appalled" by the incident.
"He has no tolerance for those who violate the law and expects the authorities to continue to prosecute the case. Senator Menendez believes this incident underscores the reason we need comprehensive immigration reform that provides zero tolerance for those who have criminal records," she said.
The prosecutor's office in Hudson County, N.J., said Sanchez was found to have violated the law in 2010 and subsequently required to register as a sex offender. The exact charge was unclear because Sanchez was prosecuted as a juvenile and those court records are not publicly accessible. The prosecutor's office confirmed to AP that Sanchez registered as a sex offender, although his name does not appear on the public registry. The acting county prosecutor, Gaetano Gregory, is a Republican.
Authorities in Hudson County notified ICE agents in early October that they suspected Sanchez was an illegal immigrant who was a registered sex offender and who may be eligible to be deported. ICE agents in New Jersey notified superiors at the Homeland Security Department because they considered it a potentially high profile arrest, and DHS instructed them not to arrest Sanchez until after the November election, one U.S. official told the AP. ICE officials complained that the delay was inappropriate, but DHS directed them several times not to act, the official said.
It was not immediately clear why federal immigration authorities would not have been notified sooner about Sanchez's status.
During discussions about when and where to arrest Sanchez, the U.S. reviewed Sanchez's application for permission to stay in the country as part of President Obama's policy to allow up to 1.7 million young illegal immigrants avoid deportation and get permission to work for up to two years. As a sex offender, he would not have been eligible. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, notified Sanchez of that shortly before his arrest, one official said.
Menendez said the arrest spoke to the need for comprehensive immigration reform that brings illegal immigrants out of the shadows.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.