Modesto teen gets second chance from immigration service

Chris Venter, a native of South Africa, talks to his son Geoffrey's dogs, Kangaroo and Zeus.  Geoffrey Venter's lawyer said, 'If he gets in trouble again, he'll be on his way out the door to Britain.'
Chris Venter, a native of South Africa, talks to his son Geoffrey's dogs, Kangaroo and Zeus. Geoffrey Venter's lawyer said, 'If he gets in trouble again, he'll be on his way out the door to Britain.' Modesto Bee

When Geoffrey Venter slipped brass knuckles into his pocket and headed out to trade them for some video games eight months ago, he couldn't have imagined how it would change his and family's lives.

The 19-year-old's misstep almost got him kicked out of the country like the nearly 90,000 non-U.S. citizens who were picked up and deported in 2006 for committing crimes. While the young Modesto man is a legal U.S. resident, he's not a naturalized citizen.

"If you have a green card, essentially you're a guest. One of the expectations is that, as a guest, you show respect for the host country," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Unlike most of the thousands of non-citizens who are arrested for committing crimes, Venter was given a second chance. He was released from a federal detainment center in Eloy, Ariz., on Wednesday night after awaiting trial for nearly seven months.

While he could not be reached for this article, he has written extensively to his father about his detention.

"I've made some mistakes, bad ones. But I've never hurt anyone, never been violent," he wrote. "All I want is to be a great citizen of America. I love it here. I don't want to be anywhere else."

When Venter had the brass knuckles, he was violating a probation agreement that stemmed from an incident in October 2006. A friend had brought a stolen PlayStation into his house. The police came, found the PlayStation and searched Venter and his two friends. One friend had four Vicodin and no prescription.

Although the stolen property and drugs weren't Venter's, in the court's eye he was guilty of letting the drug and the stolen property into his house.

Under federal law, legal immigrants who are not citizens can be deported for committing crimes, including misdemeanor offenses such as theft or receiving stolen property.

It's been that way since Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. The act expanded the list of things legal residents can be exported for doing and left little room for judges to consider factors such as family ties, community contributions and length of U.S. residency when deciding deportation cases.

But Wednesday, the weighty combination of issues surrounding Venter's case convinced ICE officials to release him, according to his lawyer, Ramiro Castro of San Francisco.

"He's young. He's been here almost all his life. He has no immediate family anywhere else. He expressed remorse. And he has this bipolar attention deficit disorder," Castro said.

Avoiding deportation after being arrested is rare and will not happen for Venter again, Castro said.

"If he gets in trouble again, he'll be on his way out the door to Britain," he said.

If Venter stays out of trouble, he can apply for citizenship in five years.

"You have to show good moral character for at least the last five years. Even then, it's not automatic," Castro said.

Had ICE pushed for deportation and the judge agreed, Venter likely would have been sent to England, where he has distant relatives but doesn't know anyone. He visited only once, for five months as a baby, said his father Chris Venter, 59, of Mo- desto.

Leaving South Africa

Geoffrey was born in South Africa to a British mother and South African father. A month later, the family sold everything and stayed in Britain for a few months on their way to the United States, where his mother had lined up a job as a nurse. While his father never had considered moving to the United States, he supported leaving to escape growing political and social unrest associated with South African apartheid.

If officials tried to deport Venter and England refused admittance, he could have gone to South Africa next.

"There's no work there and the cost of living is high. They all want to get out and can't. There's nothing there for him," Chris Venter said.

"We came here because we thought it would be a better life for the kids," Chris Venter said.

But it hasn't been a perfect life. Chris Venter said that after the family arrived in 1988, he had a hard time finding work without citizenship, so he started taking odd jobs. The lack of consistency of work created tension between him and his wife, and they divorced in 1994.

At age 8, Geoffrey was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. A few years later that was changed to bipolar disorder, a condition associated with extreme mood shifts.

"My son is a messed-up boy. He's bipolar, but would never take medication because he thought other boys would laugh at him, like he's mentally ill or something," Chris Venter said.

Then, Geoffrey's mother died of an aneurysm a month before he was picked up for having brass knuckles.

"That really busted him up big time," Chris Venter said.

Geoffrey's mother's death widened a divide between them, his father said.

"He always accused me of the divorce and her death. He really hated me," Chris Venter said. "But he's my boy. I couldn't turn my back on him."

It's been a long road for the Venters, a road that's ended happily, his father said.

As Geoffrey sat in a federal detainment center facing deportation, he changed into a person his father would like to meet.

"While he's been down there, he's been on medication. He's a changed guy. He's been writing me beautiful letters," Chris Venter said tearfully.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.