Thanks to the Efforts of the Immigration Law Unit and the Criminal Practice, 73-Year-Old Yugoslavian National Is Granted Permanent Residence, After 43 Years
Ivan Dopater with his lawyer, Ward Oliver

Collaborative efforts between the Criminal Practice and the Civil Practice's Immigration Law Unit resulted in lawful permanent residency for a 73-year-old Yugoslavian national. On November 16, 2010, nearly 43 years after he entered the United States, Ivan Dopater was granted lawful permanent residence by an Immigration Judge. He was represented by Ward Oliver, Criminal/Immigration Specialist in the Immigration Law Unit. Mr. Dopater, a citizen of the former Yugoslavia, entered the United States in 1967 with a visitor’s visa. He subsequently changed his status to a non-immigrant student visa to study electronics and English. His student visa expired on September 30, 1969. He is currently stateless because the Republic of Croatia does not recognize him as a citizen.

At various times since 1969, Ivan Dopater has worked in factories, for contractors and in building maintenance. Until the early 1990’s, he shared an apartment with his U.S. citizen aunt. After his aunt was hospitalized, Ivan was evicted from their apartment due to his inability to pay the rent on his own. Since then, he has survived by trading his services for basement rooms and wages below the minimum wage because of his immigration status. When he was not working, he lived in shelters. He has no family in the United States and lost contact with his family in the former Yugoslavia after the disintegration of that country.

Although he has been arrested a handful of times in the past, he has no criminal record. On May 9, 2009, Ivan was arrested for criminal possession of stolen property in the 4th degree (possession of a stolen credit card). At his arraignment, bail was set and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lodged an immigration detainer (warrant requesting the Department of Correction to notify ICE upon completion of the criminal case to pick him up for deportation) against him while he was at Rikers Island. Ivan always maintained his innocence, explaining that he found the credit card in the trash just before he was arrested and had planned to drop it in a mail box or leave it at a Bank of America location.

George Depountis, a staff attorney in the Criminal Practice's Manhattan Office who represents Mr. Dopater, contacted Ward Oliver in the Immigration Unit for assistance in figuring out Ivan’s immigration status and to explore the potential for relief from deportation. A review of Ivan’s immigration court file revealed that he had been ordered deported in absentia by a New York immigration court judge in 1993. A careful analysis of his immigration history also indicated that Ivan remained eligible for two discretionary forms of relief: Registry (a foreign national who has maintained residence in the United States since January 1972 and can demonstrate that he is a person of good moral character) and Suspension of Deportation (for a person who can prove that he has resided continuously in the United States for seven years, is a person of good moral character and whose removal would cause extreme hardship to himself or to certain qualified family members). Either of these relief options would avoid Ivan’s deportation if his in absentia removal order was vacated and his case reopened.

Meantime, the District Attorney's office, cognizant that there was little evidence of Ivan’s guilt, offered to allow him to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, a non-criminal offense. Ivan declined the offer both because he was innocent and to allow time to reopen his immigration case. After Ivan spent more than three months at Rikers, the DA's office dismissed the case against him on August 31, 2009.

Ivan was transferred to immigration custody at the Varick Federal Detention Center. While in custody, Ward filed a motion to reopen the in absentia removal order arguing that it was unclear from the record that Ivan understood the immigration court’s non-appearance warning and also requesting a stay of his deportation. He also contacted Ivan’s deportation officer to let him know of the pending motion to reopen. The immigration judge granted the motion to reopen and scheduled a merits hearing for November 16, 2010. Once the motion to reopen was granted, ICE released Ivan from custody.

Ward prepared Ivan’s applications for relief and spent countless hours thoroughly documenting his residence in the United States since 1967 to support his claim for relief. Ward also spent hours preparing Ivan to testify at his merits hearing in immigration court. Among the documents submitted to the court were letters from the Croatian Consulate indicating that they did not recognize Ivan as a citizen. Several people who had employed Ivan declined to testify or provide affidavits.

On November 16, 2010, Ivan testified about his long residence in the United States. The judge granted his Suspension application, and the government waived appeal of the judge’s decision. Mr. Dopater will receive his Green card shortly. He is now eligible to receive social security benefits, having paid social security taxes during 20 years of on-the-books employment.