Faced with deportation, Haitian immigrant James T. Leger did not lay low to avoid authorities, like most people living in the U.S. illegally might do.
Instead, he leased a radio station, hosted a morning show, sponsored concerts, participated in a relief trip to Haiti with the actor Sean Penn and became, as one community leader put it, “the most popular Haitian media person” in South Florida.
But his audacity backfired recently when he tried to renew his passport and triggered several fraud indicators, according to court records. After a six-month investigation, federal agents arrested him on charges of passport fraud, identity theft and lying to U.S. Citizenship officials. Leger, 37, faces as many as 17 years in prison if he is convicted and a judge imposes maximum sentences.
“We thought his situation was OK,” said Euverard Saint Amand, 34, who hosts a program on Leger’s station, WHTY-AM. “When someone leaves here and they travel to Haiti, that means they have documents.”
Not Leger, it seems, according to immigration officials. The prominent West Palm Beach resident foiled the feds, dodging what amounts to an arrest warrant, for more than 12 years. He passed through airports as Wilbert Carn, investigators say, traveling out of the country 10 times.
Immigration officials, reached by phone, would not explain how he evaded removal. But ignoring deportation orders is common. By one government estimate, more than 800,000 people remain in the United States even after a judge ordered them to leave.
Richard A. Hujber, a Boynton Beach immigration attorney, worked in immigration court, within the Justice Department, and in the Board of Immigration Appeals for five years. “There is a huge population of people living in this country with a deportation order,” he said. So many that enforcement officers “don’t even put a dent” in them.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that executes the orders, must prioritize whom it deports. They start with criminals. But “those who flagrantly ignore an immigration court’s order” also are high on the list.
Leger managed to avoid capture despite being on the radio and extremely visible in the Haitian community. He had committed crimes in the past.
After he entered the U.S. in 1992 and became a permanent resident three years later, a series of arrests and convictions ensued between 1999 and 2002: marijuana possession, to which he pleaded no contest; convictions for intent to sell cocaine, driving with a suspended license and passing a worthless check; and a charge for operating a business without a license.
An immigration judge on Feb. 15, 2001, ordered his deportation, according to the State Department. It is unclear why the order was issued. Leger’s immigration attorney could not be reached for comment despite calls, and his criminal attorney, Kevin Anderson, said he did not know.
Leger has a wife, a local chiropractor who also could not be reached for comment despite calls, and four young children, court records show.
In 2010, Lake Worth businessman Robert Touchton bought an AM radio station and discovered the perfect person to run it: Leger “is very popular,” a friend had told him. “And he’s very well known in the Haitian community.”
At that time, Leger’s broadcasts were solely online. It’s not easy to make money doing online audio broadcasts, but Leger was, Touchton said. He leased “99 percent” of his station’s air time to Leger.
Aside from “The Morning Show with James Leger,” much of the programming is evangelical talk, and he has held Christian music concerts at a Boynton Beach high school that attracted hundreds, said Yanick M. Abellard, a Haitian nonprofit director, who attended one.
Leger’s show also is known for helping Haitians who have fallen on hard times. Saint Amand, the other morning host, said Leger “was like family” to his listeners.
Leger once allowed a woman down on her luck to broadcast her story. The community chipped in, and now she has an apartment and a used car to drive to work, Abellard said.
“He did change the life of many, many people,” she said.
On May 23, 2012, Leger mailed Carn’s information to the State Department to renew his passport, according to court records.
They approved the application and shipped a fresh passport to a West Palm Beach post office box. But officials noted fraud indicators, including a printed signature and undeliverable address, and referred the case to investigators, according to the complaint.
Comparing booking mugshots of Carn and Leger, the agent determined Leger put his picture with Carn’s information. The trick worked in 2002, but a decade later his luck ran out, according to the complaint. They arrested him at his home on May 29.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed reporting.
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