A longtime legal resident of the United States may have been deported to the wrong country for a crime he didn’t commit—all due to what a foreign court has determined could be a case of mistaken identity.
Ilir Hope, a 52-year-old citizen of Albania and a 16-year lawful permanent resident of the United States, was deported in October 2018 after ICE sought his removal for a decade-old drug trafficking conviction in Italy. But after his deportation to Italy instead of his native Albania, Hope was released from jail—because, it turns out, he may not have committed a crime at all.
An Italian appeals court found that the conviction that prompted his deportation may actually have involved a different person with the same name, born nearly 20 years later and in another country.
Now, it’s unclear how Hope can return to the United States from Italy, a country he has never called home and, according to ICE’s own guidelines, should never have been deported to in the first place.
“The initial outrage was that they had deported him to the wrong country, apparently on purpose,” Matthew L. Hoppock, Hope’s immigration attorney, told The Daily Beast. “Now he has a court order showing the conviction they deported him for—which had been entered in absentia in Italy—was for a different person.”
That person, according to a court order challenging Hope’s conviction in Italy—which formed the basis for his removal—was “Osmani Ilir,” born in Macedonia on April 2, 1985.
Hope was born in Albania on July 29, 1965.
“The only similarity is the name,” Hoppock said, “and it’s the most common name in Albania.”
“Osmani” was Hope’s original surname before he married a U.S. citizen in 2002 and changed his name, a change that is reflected in his Albanian passport.
Hope, whose parents and siblings live in the United States, was granted lawful permanent U.S. resident status in April 2002 following his marriage. Although he was placed in removal proceedings in January 2008 after being charged with abandoning his lawful permanent resident status—that is, leaving the United States for too long a period—the charges were later terminated without prejudice, and he had no further run-ins with the law until Nov. 12, 2017, when ICE agents pulled him over, arrested him, and charged him with an aggravated felony related to illicit trafficking.
Hope’s legal team protested to immigration authorities that the charges didn’t make sense.
The July 4, 2003 conviction, which referred to “Ilir Osmani,” was for cocaine possession and complicity in drug trafficking in Italy, at a time when Hoppock contends Hope wasn’t even in Italy. The Italian records for the case contain numerous conflicting birthdates, passport numbers, and physical measurements—the judgment entered in Italy had been entered against a man with a different date of birth, a different passport number, and who was six inches taller than Hope.
“Ilir Osmani” is one of the most common male names in Albania, sort of like being named “John Smith” in the United States. There are even other federal immigration cases involving respondents named Ilir Osmani.
The potential for mistaken identity wasn’t the only problem with the government’s case, Hoppock said. According to a decades-old Board of Immigration Appeals precedent, immigrants can’t be deported for Italian in absentia convictions because they don’t comply with due process.
“This is the issue we have pending on appeal at the circuit court—the law is pretty clear they weren’t allowed to deport him on this basis,” Hoppock said. “A foreign criminal judgment rendered in absentia, without adequate notice to the defendant, will not trigger deportation, because it is not a ‘conviction’ for immigration purposes.”
The Board of Immigration Appeals disagreed, ruling in August 2018 that the court “need only determine that the conduct reached by the foreign statute is criminal in nature under the laws of the United States.”
Hope was ordered to be deported to Albania, his country of origin, in late October 2018, but never arrived. After Hoppock and Hope’s family expressed concern that they had not heard from him since he was supposed to have arrived in Tirana, the Albanian capital, ICE deportation officer Paul Dechir sent a curt email on Halloween: “Mr. Hope’s removal flight transited Rome in route Albania. He was detained by Italian authorities in Rome. You or his family, will need to contact the embassy in Rome for more information.”
ICE is required by law to designate which country it is planning to deport a person to so that the deportee has a chance to seek protection if they fear being tortured or persecuted in that country. A transcript of Hope’s removal proceedings show that Department of Homeland Security lawyer Mohammad Abdelaziz designated Hope’s destination as Albania, and when Hoppock delivered Hope’s luggage and $500 cash to ICE on the night before his removal, the officer who arranged his travel told Hoppock that his client was being flown to Albania.
“We think that they did it on purpose—they sent him to Italy because they knew he’d get arrested there,” Hoppock said. “Italy tortures prisoners. This gentleman never got a chance to apply for Convention Against Torture protection because ICE lied about where it was deporting him.”
Shawn Neudauer, an ICE public affairs officer, told The Daily Beast that the agency is looking into the case, which he called “extremely complicated.”
Hope was eventually apprehended in Italy and jailed on the in absentia drug sentence, until the Milan Court of Appeals ruled on March 6 that the original conviction records had been addressed to the Ilir Osmani born in Macedonia in 1985, giving the court “a reasonable doubt... that the notifications were addressed to different individuals.”
The court ruled that Hope, whose birth date it got wrong yet again, “be granted relief from time constraints” in order to appeal his sentence, and ordered his release from custody.
Following the court’s decision, Hoppock filed supplemental evidence with the Board of Immigration Appeals on April 17, arguing that the decision “corroborates Mr. Hope’s defense that the convictions records the DHS filed... as proof of a foreign conviction appeared to relate to a different person with the same name.” The decision also undercuts the legitimacy of the in absentia sentencing, Hoppock argued, because Hope never could have had the opportunity to appeal a sentence that he was never notified had been handed down.
“They haven’t responded at all,” Hoppock said, despite numerous attempts to reach ICE, DHS and the Board of Immigration Appeals. Hoppock continues to pursue an appeal in the conservative Eighth Circuit on Hope’s behalf, but in the meantime, Hope remains stranded in Italy, where he is appealing the drug conviction that he maintains has nothing to do with him.
“Most of his family is here,” Hoppock said of Hope. “They haven’t heard from him in weeks.”