Neuhardt Scorned for Immigrant Friend

Posted September 24, 2008 at 6:44pm

For attorney Sharen Neuhardt, immigration law has become a personal issue.

For almost six years, Neuhardt, the Democratic nominee in Ohio’s open 7th district race, has housed and cared for Ishema Umohoza, a 26-year-old immigrant who left Rwanda at the age of 11. From dental bills to student loans, Neuhardt and her husband have considered Umohoza to be a member of their family.

Federal records show that Umohoza was in the country illegally for at least a year during that time period, though Neuhardt’s campaign said she and Umohoza were unaware that he was in the country illegally until the fall of 2004. As soon as they found out, Neuhardt’s campaign said they moved to rectify his immigration status.

But regardless of his current status, the political implications of Umohoza’s ties to Neuhardt are unclear in the south central Ohio district. While national Republicans took issue with Neuhardt’s decision to aid an illegal immigrant, the Democrat’s campaign accused her opponent of using Umohoza — whose situation was first reported in the Dayton Daily News on Wednesday — as a political pawn.

While the 7th district is not the most competitive race in Ohio, Neuhardt’s campaign against state Sen. Steve Austria (R) was included in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which highlights the 54 most promising Democratic House campaigns in Republican-held districts.

According to court records, Umohoza is currently in the country legally. He was granted a temporary stay on June 24, 2005, by a U.S. District Court judge in southern Ohio. And most recently, a magistrate judge, Sharon Ovington, recommended last month that he be allowed to stay in the country, calling Umohoza “the type of person — hardworking, intelligent, ambitious, law-abiding — who would normally be expected to provide positive contributions to American society.”

Some critics might see Umohoza’s record as anything but law-abiding, however. In addition to several traffic violations for driving without a license, Umohoza had judgements against him for money owed to credit companies and the state of Ohio.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Brendan Buck said the entire situation raised issues about Neuhardt’s judgement.

“Both bizarre and troubling, Sharen Neuhardt’s defiance in harboring an illegal immigrant raises serious questions about her judgment,” Buck said. “While she obviously thinks she can defy federal deportation orders, it is more astonishing that Neuhardt thought she could hide this from voters. Ohio voters want a Representative who will help solve the illegal-immigration problem, not one who contributes to it.”

Most recently, Umohoza was arrested for disorderly conduct on Aug. 3. According to the Yellow Springs Police Department arrest report, a visibly drunk Umohoza asked police to “call my mother, Sharon.” Also, according to the police report, a record check revealed an active warrant from the Mayor’s Court and a note to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities if he was located.

Umohoza was temporarily detained as a result of the incident, but was released when police received the stay order from 2005, according to Neuhardt’s campaign.

“He was stupid and young and drank and tried to walk home,” Neuhardt said about the incident. “And that’s the truth.”

In an interview last week in Washington, D.C., an emboldened Neuhardt described how Umohoza learned English by watching “Jerry Springer” talk-show episodes and worked 30 hours a week to pay for his education at the University of Dayton.

“Here he is: He’s graduated, he’s got a degree in computer science, he’s fluent in four languages,” Neuhardt said. “He’s the perfect kind of person we want to welcome into this country.”

Neuhardt’s ties to Umohoza are not only personal, but also financial: from an estimated $70,000 to $100,000 in pro bono work from her law firm, to a $5,000 dental bill and paying for some of his college courses.

“I’d do everything I’ve done all over again,” she said.

Neuhardt said she met Umohoza through her daughter, who interviewed Umohoza about his time in Rwanda for a college term paper in fall 2002. Over the next three years, Umohoza stayed with the Neuhardts at their farm during holiday breaks when the dorms closed at the University of Dayton. In June 2005, Neuhardt said Umohoza moved into their home on a permanent basis.

In fall 2004, Neuhardt said she first realized Umohoza’s immigration status was in question when he was turned down for a student loan in his junior year. At that time, they learned that Umohoza’s petition for asylum had been rejected and the window to appeal had lapsed.

Umohoza had entered the country in 1998 under the auspices of a family friend, Cecile Ntawukulilyayo, whose final documented appeal to the Board of Immigration was dismissed in 2003. Neuhardt’s campaign maintained that neither she nor Umohoza knew about his immigration status.

“After the appeal was denied in 2003, he was under a deportation, but he had no knowledge of that, and neither did the Neuhardts,” campaign spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said. “Once they found out, they moved immediately to get him back in accordance with the law.”

Donald Mooers, an immigration lawyer in Bethesda, Md., said it’s “quite common” for adult immigrants who have entered the United States as minors to not know their legal status.

“Unfortunately, it happens with a lot of frequency,” Mooers said.

Additionally, Mooers said that three-year-long backlogs for immigration cases are not unheard of in recent years.

“You’re looking at hundreds of thousands of cases. Each has to be judged on its merits,” Mooers said. “I don’t find that completely out of the realm of possibility.”

Meanwhile, at campaign headquarters in Ohio, Neuhardt said Umohoza has never been on her campaign payroll. But she did call him an “active volunteer.”

Umohoza is, however, listed on her campaign’s Facebook group — a social networking Web site — as an administrator. However Neuhardt said this was not an official campaign effort.

“I have personally made sure that in the last six years, that Ishema has filed every tax return he’s supposed to,” she said. “He pays every dime of taxes, he is a model young man and there is no mother in the country who would not have tried to save him if they knew his case. And I will not allow Steve Austria or anybody else to take potshots at him, because he’s like a son to me.”

But Austria campaign manager Brad Mascho said his campaign only learned of Neuhardt’s involvement with Umohoza from the Dayton Daily News story.

“As a sworn officer of the court, any allegation that Sharen Neuhardt harbored an illegal immigrant for several years is a serious matter,” Mascho said in a statement. “Questions about attorney Sharen Neuhardt’s involvement in his past and the providing of safe harbor to a person with active warrants deserve answers and more thorough scrutiny from the appropriate officials.”