LOS ANGELES (AP) - A man who was released from an immigration detention center after his daughter traveled to the Vatican to plead with Pope Francis to help with her father's immigration case asked a judge Thursday not to deport him.
Mario Vargas appeared before an immigration judge in Los Angeles for the first time since he was released on bond from an immigration detention facility in Louisiana in 2014. Vargas' then-10-year-old daughter, Jersey, had traveled from California to the Vatican and addressed Pope Francis shortly before the pontiff met with former President Barack Obama. Days later, Vargas was released on a $5,000 bond but his deportation case was still pending.
His attorney, Alex Galvez, said Vargas is asking the judge to let him legally stay in the U.S. or for federal immigration officials to use what is known as prosecutorial discretion to place the case on hold so Vargas can continue to raise his family in the U.S.
On Thursday, federal officials formally filed notice seeking to deport Vargas because he had been living in the United States illegally for about 17 years, Galvez said. The procedural hearing in a small courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, which lasted less than 10 minutes, was just the first hearing in what is expected to be a long court battle, the attorney said.
"He's not a bad hombre and I'm willing to put my feet to the fire on that," Galvez said. "Mario Vargas and Jersey Vargas put the face of the immigrant struggle front and center."
Since meeting with the pontiff, Jersey Vargas and her family have appeared at several rallies and the family has publicly lobbied for immigration reform.
"To President Trump, I would like to say, 'Please stop judging us,'" Jersey Vargas said at a news conference Thursday. "We are all human here and I hope you can really change and make our country flourish."
Mario Vargas had been arrested in 2013 in Tennessee and convicted of driving under the influence before he was taken into federal custody the next year, Bryan Cox, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Associated Press in 2014.
"I want to stress Mr. Vargas is not the only one in this situation," Galvez said after the court hearing. "There are thousands and thousands of families going through the same thing and it's an everyday struggle for them...America is America because of immigrants."