Suburban immigration lawyer gets 15 months for asylum scam

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Sun-Times file photo

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Robert Dekelaita cheated the immigration system like “a well-oiled machine,” the feds say.

When he found a client seeking asylum in the United States, typically from Iraq, the suburban attorney would quickly forge that person’s name on an application and pepper the person’s life story with horrific hardships, including kidnappings, bombings and religious persecution — all false. He drew inspiration from news articles he collected.

Then, prosecutors say he would employ a team of co-conspirators to help him forge documents, even allegedly bribing an immigration prosecutor, to usher the applicant through the asylum process. He fancied himself “a Robin Hood of refugees,” they said.

But Robin Hood was an outlaw. And nearly a year after Dekelaita’s own criminal conviction, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly sentenced him to 15 months in prison Wednesday. The judge noted that, even if Dekelaita chose to break the law out of noble intentions, “you have to be willing to pay the price for it.”

Still, at the end of a tempered ruling that noted Dekelaita’s scheme largely took place more than a decade ago, the judge encouraged Dekelaita, 54, of Glenview, to file a motion to remain free while he appeals his conviction for conspiracy to commit asylum fraud.

Dekelaita is an Assyrian Christian who came to the United States from Iraq when he was 10 years old as his family fled persecution from the Baath regime, according to his lawyers. They argued during his trial that illegal immigrants fearing deportation told their own lies to help the U.S. government build its case against Dekelaita.

The feds also say Dekelaita sent a letter to clients after his conviction claiming he “cheated no one and have not told anyone to lie. I have protected my clients as any good attorney should.”

But many of Dekelaita’s clients now face deportation because of the fraud, prosecutors said. Others say their lives were ruined because they were forced to live out the lies he created. Another pair testified that Dekelaita sent them a letter congratulating them on winning asylum, only to find out after the appeal deadline that they had actually been denied.

A jury convicted Dekelaita on four counts after a weeks-long trial in the spring of 2016. But Kennelly later tossed three of them, leaving only the conspiracy count standing.

Prosecutors also charged two interpreters for helping Dekelaita pull off his scam. One, Adam Benjamin, was sentenced in July 2015 to six months in prison for his role in the conspiracy. The feds agreed to defer prosecution of another interpreter, Yousif Yousif.

The feds have also accused Dekelaita of paying at least $5,000 in bribes to an immigration prosecutor, often passing the money “covertly during a handshake.” However, they didn’t charge Dekelaita with paying the bribe, and Dekelaita has denied it. The prosecutor has since retired and, though he faces a federal bankruptcy fraud indictment, he does not appear to be charged with the bribery.

Kennelly told prosecutors he didn’t think he could consider it in handing down Dekelaita’s sentence.

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