An Iraqi refugee accused of shooting a Colorado Springs police officer in the head was in federal custody awaiting deportation in 2016 until an immigration judge put a halt to his removal, citing changes in the law.
Karrar Noaman Al Khammasi, 31, was ordered released from ICE custody in November 2016, after a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision invalidated the government’s grounds for his removal, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman said Monday.
That court found that how the government defines an “aggravated felony” — a deportable offense — was unconstitutionally vague.
Citing that ruling, an Aurora immigration judge ordered that Al Khammasi’s pending deportation case be closed and that he be freed, according to the DHS spokeswoman. She provided information on grounds that her name not be used, citing privacy concerns. Al Khammasi pleaded guilty to felony trespassing in February 2014, laying the groundwork for the deportation proceedings.
New details about Al Khammasi’s immigration status come as the police officer he is accused of wounding, Cem Duzel, remained in critical condition at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.
Duzel, a five-year police veteran, was responding to a call of shots fired early Thursday near the U.S. Olympic Training Center when he was wounded in a gunbattle with Al Khammasi, according to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
Al Khammasi also was injured during the confrontation and remains in treatment at Memorial. He did not appear at a previously scheduled court advisement Monday afternoon.
Last week’s attack came six months after an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot in the line of duty, and it raised questions as to why the suspect in the latest shooting remained in the country despite repeated brushes with the law.
Al Khammasi was granted refugee status in May 2012 and entered the country six months later on a flight from Istanbul to Chicago, DHS said.
Refugees are people outside of their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. The basis for granting Al Khammasi refugee status wasn’t clear. The DHS spokeswoman said privacy rules prevented her from releasing more information about his background.
After his 2014 guilty plea to trespassing, Al Khammasi violated terms of a two-year probation and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
He was paroled in April 2016 to the custody of ICE, Colorado Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Fairbairn said.
Al Khammasi initially was ordered removed from the U.S. in June 2016. Four months later, however, immigration authorities petitioned to terminate proceedings on the ground that his trespassing conviction no longer constituted an aggravated felony, the DHS spokeswoman said.
The 10th Circuit Court’s decision dealt with a definition of a crime of violence, which affects whether it could be considered an aggravated felony.
The U.S. Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion in April.
“I don’t think there’s anybody anywhere that can claim this was because the people at immigration didn’t do their job,” said David Simmons, a Denver immigration attorney of more than 30 years and a former adjunct professor at the University of Denver. “If they want to say that anybody didn’t do their job — Congress didn’t. But that’s par for the course in immigration.”
The DHS spokeswoman said the Trump administration is working to better define what constitutes a deportable offense.
People entering the U.S. as refugees must undergo a rigorous vetting process that often takes years. Each applicant must undergo multiple interviews — often in their refugee camp — as well as several criminal background checks. They also must be medically screened.
Federal officials decide where refugees will initially resettle, though those refugees are free to move once they arrive.
Once refugees arrive, they can get up to five years of assistance from certain nonprofits that receive federal funding, which is overseen by the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Those services include money to help them find a place to live, as well as employment assistance, English classes and cultural orientation help. Along the way, refugees are assigned case managers to help them navigate that process and acclimate to life in America.
A representative for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains at its Colorado Springs office — the sole nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in El Paso County — referred inquiries last week to the state Department of Human Services. An agency spokeswoman said it does not comment on involvement with clients.
The vast majority of refugees live prosperously – finding jobs and contributing to their new community, said Kit Taintor, Colorado’s refugee coordinator with the Department of Human Services.
“Most refugees successfully integrate into life here in Colorado, by finding jobs, by becoming part of the fabric of our community,” Taintor said.
Petula McShiras, a Colorado Springs immigration attorney who spent several years as a refugee case manager in Arizona, agreed. She said most refugees’ resettlements are “extremely successful.”
“Keep in mind they have not been able to live their lives the way they want to for years,” McShiras said. “So when they come to the United States, they want to get their lives on track. They want to be able to work, to provide for their families, to contribute to society.”