Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Paper trail of Haitian pastor in Tampa curtails U.S. citizenship

TAMPA — For nearly five years, Benedique Jean-Philippe was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

He drove a taxi around Tampa, led a Creole service at a Free Methodist church, became a certified nursing assistant. He saw a daughter and a son start college.

Haiti was behind him.

But so were old secrets.

On Thursday, a federal judge stripped Jean-Philippe of his citizenship as punishment for not divulging on his 2007 naturalization application that the United States had previously rejected him and tried to deport him.

The man who studied English, passed a civics test, swore allegiance to the United States and showed up at the polls to vote will mostly likely be expelled, his attorney said. An immigration judge will have the last word.

Federal law mandates the "denaturalization" because Jean-Philippe was convicted of one count of illegally procuring his citizenship. He pleaded guilty in March and was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington to time served — five months.

The crime could have been punishable by up to 10 years.

Jean-Philippe's clean record played well with a sentencing formula, which recommended zero to six months. He has lived in the United States since 1999. This was his first criminal charge.

"Honorable Judge, I'm not a delinquent," he wrote to the court. "At 54 years of age, I have been arrested for the first time and I swear for the last time."

He told her about the kids in college, 19 and 21. He talked about paying for gas, phones, hair cuts and car insurance.

"I love the United States," he wrote. "It is my duty to work and contribute for the good of my country. I am a U.S. citizen and my whole family is here."

Jean-Philippe apparently caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security by completing applications seven years apart using names that were close but not identical.

In 2000, he applied for asylum as Georges Benedique Jean Philippe. He was denied.

In 2007, he applied for naturalization and dropped the "Georges." He was approved.

Between those years, he attained legal residency status by marrying a citizen, according to his attorney, Joe Bodiford.

"She filed paperwork to make him legal," Bodiford said. "But she fell in love with somebody, and so they got legally divorced."

That's when Jean-Philippe sought citizenship.

His earlier asylum request had led to a deportation order that never caught up with him.

He didn't disclose that in his second application.

"Unfortunately, in wanting so desperately to save his family from the horrors in Haiti and come to the land of milk and honey, he made some reckless decisions," Bodiford said.

Eventually, Homeland Security agents compared fingerprints. Jean-Philippe got caught.

Prosecutor Jay Hoffer reminded the judge that Jean-Philippe did not leave the county when ordered and had provided a false identity at least once.

"I'm not sure the United States knows who he is, his true identity," Hoffer said.

Jean-Philippe's son, brother and current wife — the mother of his children — all attended the hearing. He smiled when he saw them.

Thaddeus Roller, pastor of Celebration Free Methodist Church in Central Tampa, asked for leniency for Jean-Philippe.

The two met a few years ago. The taxi driver had driven past the church. In Haiti, he was a Free Methodist minister. He offered to lead services in Creole.

He never asked to be paid.

He saw other immigrants, "many of whom are alone and broken, maybe under represented and unconnected, and he set out to minister to them," Roller said after the hearing.

Roller described Jean-Philippe as "bubbly, optimistic, faithful and understated."

It's still not clear how an immigration decision against Jean-Philippe would affect the status of others in the family.

If Jean-Philippe returns to a pastor's role in Haiti, he will have friends in Tampa providing support, Roller said.

"The denomination continues to affirm him as a person we place trust in."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

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