Jessica Colotl, the former Kennesaw State University student whose arrest for driving without a license caused a dust-up over illegal immigrants attending public universities, is close to clearing one of her last legal hurdles.
Colotl has completed a Cobb County pretrial diversion program that will allow her to avoid a felony conviction for false swearing to authorities. The Sheriff's Department said she lied to deputies about her address on March 30, 2010 when she was booked into the jail for driving without a license.
Colotl said she is trying to stay positive, and she is hopeful that she can soon start to put the past behind her.
"It was a horrible experience at the beginning to be incarcerated and to not know what was going to happen to me," Colotl said. "But now that it's been kind of resolved, I am very happy. I think all of that experience makes me want to fight for my dreams even more."
Colotl's lawyers and prosecutors agreed she would enter pretrial diversion and thus avoid a felony conviction, which could impair her ability to get a job or attend graduate school in the future. Colotl completed 150 hours of community service and reported once or twice a month to the Cobb County District Attorney's Office for a five-month period that ended in February.
Superior Court Judge Mary Staley must sign off on the paperwork at Colotl's next scheduled court appearance on Monday before the case can be closed. Staley has declined to comment on the case.
Not everyone is happy with the outcome. Phil Kent, an anti-illegal immigration activist who is on the state's new Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said it's an injustice that Colotl was allowed into pretrial diversion. "All I can say is I hope Judge Mary Staley doesn’t sign off on this," said Kent, whose board does not have a say in the matter.
The judge could opt not to sign the paperwork. However, District Attorney Pat Head said that would be unusual because he has indicated he does not intend to prosecute Colotl.
Colotl's parents brought her from Mexico to the U.S. when she was a child. A Kennesaw State University officer stopped her car on campus for obstructing traffic in a parking lot. She was arrested when she failed to produce a valid driver's license.
Because the Cobb County Sheriff's Office participates in a federal program that allows deputies to check the immigration status of anyone booked into the jail, her illegal status was discovered and Colotl was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. She was held at a detention center in Alabama for 37 days.
However, after her sorority sisters, KSU president Daniel Papp, and immigrant advocacy groups rushed to her defense, Colotl was granted a year-long deferment to complete her studies.
The case sparked a nationwide controversy, re-igniting a public debate over whether illegal immigrants are taking seats in public colleges away from lawful residents. In response, the State Board of Regents adopted a policy that bars illegal immigrants from colleges that had to turn away academically qualified applicants. The rule applies to five colleges, but not Kennesaw State.
Colotl's lawyers have one final legal hurdle to clear -- they are still appealing a guilty verdict in Cobb County State Court on the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license that arose out of the same traffic stop.
She was sentenced in November 2010 to three days in jail. She has served 45.5 hours, however the remaining 26.5 hours of her sentence are on hold pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court, said her defense attorney, Jerome Lee.
Colotl has obtained some benefits from all the attention surrounding her case, namely a free legal defense team. She has also been granted a second one-year deferment from deportation through ICE. That deferment expires in May. Her immigration attorney, Charles Kuck, said he'll apply for a third deferment next month.
Because Colotl has a standing deportation order, she cannot apply for legal permanent residency unless there is federal immigration reform, or unless she returns to Mexico for 10 years and then applies for a visa, Kuck said.
Colotl is working for Kuck as a paralegal assistant while she saves money to pursue her dream of attending law school.
"But if you ask her, I'm sure she would rather she had never gotten pulled over that day," Lee said. "I don't know if the emotional strain is worth what she got out of it."