WASHINGTON — It was a very stupid thing to do, Kathryn Ingleson says now. She was a teenage cashier, and she used customers' credit card numbers to buy $339.07 worth of items, including a fake Christmas tree. She pleaded guilty, got probation and pretty much forgot about it.
Until, that is, she took a trip abroad six years later and federal authorities decided the crimes made her deportable. Now the British citizen, who has lived in Newport News, Va., as a lawful permanent resident since she was 7, has been ordered to leave the United States this month.
"It's just like a nightmare, really," said Ingleson, 31, who has worked at a packaging company for a decade and has two children, both U.S. citizens.
Lawyers and activists said Ingleson is one of a rising number of legal immigrants with relatively old and minor criminal records to be snagged in the federal government's stepped-up efforts to deport those whom authorities refer to as "criminal aliens."
Unlike illegal immigrants captured in raids or while crossing the border, lawyers said, these legal immigrants are often people who believed they had paid their dues, only to be flagged while presenting green cards at customs checkpoints or applying for visa renewals or citizenship.
"The perception among the American public and even among lawmakers is that the people who are being deported are maniacal, homicidal and rapist criminals," said Alison Parker, deputy director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, which published a report last year on deportations of legal immigrants. "In many cases, they're green card holders. They're the family down the street."
A 1996 federal immigration law facilitated such deportations by greatly expanding the categories of crimes that are deportable offenses, including some misdemeanors.
A total of 272,389 people were deported in 2006, and 95,752 were deported on criminal grounds, federal statistics show. More than 68 percent of the convictions that triggered deportation were for nonviolent crimes.