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Kevin Cullen

‘Model immigrant story’ faces uncertain ending

As his father lay dying in Dublin last winter, Pearse McDermott was sitting in Braintree, torn between his family in Ireland and his family in America.

If he went back to Dublin, he wouldn’t be allowed back into America for at least 10 years.

In the end, his father made the decision for him. From his death bed, he instructed Pearse to stay put.

“It still hurts,” Pearse McDermott was saying, rubbing his forehead after a long day working on a building site in South Boston. “I couldn’t bury my father. I have a wife, a house, a business. I couldn’t leave all that behind.”

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As he spoke, his wife Laura looked at him and her lip trembled, because even after that horrible choice, her husband still faces the prospect of being deported.

He came here in 2002, a year after the Twin Towers fell, because for him, like many immigrants, America represented freedom and a fresh start.

He worked the door at Nash’s, the once-teeming, since-closed pub on Dorchester Avenue near Savin Hill. He worked his way into construction, did some roofing, before settling on carpentry and opening his own contracting business.

He did this all while overstaying by years the visa that said he could stay in the United States for 90 days. He broke the rules. But then he fell in love with an American woman and the rules seemed even less important. Laura Cogliano and Pearse McDermott were married in 2009 and they decided he needed to come in from a legal shadow, to become a legal resident.

As the husband of an American citizen, this should have been mostly a formality. But it has turned out to be anything but.

It goes back to Question B of the application he filled out 14 years ago to get a visa waiver to enter the US. It asked whether he had been arrested or convicted of an offense or crime involving “moral turpitude.”

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Turns out that joint he got caught with when he was 18 years old fits the government’s definition of moral turpitude.

“I checked the no boxes on the whole thing,” Pearse McDermott said. “I wasn’t trying to lie. I wasn’t really paying attention. That’s the truth.”

When he showed up for his interview with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, looking for a green card, Pearse McDermott heeded his lawyer’s advice to be completely transparent. He even told them about a bar fight he got into in Ireland before he came to America. That honesty made things worse for him.

“They didn’t even know about the fight,” he said. “I told them about it. And now it’s being held against me.”

These, of course, are things that happened when he was young and before Pearse McDermott came to America. His lawyer, Dan Harrington, said McDermott has been a model non-citizen since. Not even a speeding ticket.

“He employs Americans,” Harrington said. “He’s the model immigrant story, a self-made man who has given back. Started a business. Pays his taxes. Bought a house.”

But the government says Pearse McDermott entered the country fraudulently. His application for a waiver for failing to check the moral turpitude box was rejected. And a few weeks ago, an ICE agent went looking for Pearse McDermott to arrest him.

Harrington was able to show the agent that he had filed an appeal, which bought Pearse McDermott some time.

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“He was pretty good about it,” Harrington said of the ICE agent. “I’ve got to be honest, the people we’ve dealt with in the Boston CIS (Citizen and Immigration Services) have been great, very respectful.”

That’s one of the things that drives Laura and Pearse McDermott crazy. It’s not the people working for the system they have a problem with, it’s the system.

It’s a system that my colleague Maria Sacchetti recently showed has released hardened criminals instead of deporting them back to their home countries. She found that between 2008 and 2012, as many as 30 percent of the more than 300 criminals released in New England had gone on to commit more serious crimes.

Which raises the question: Why is a system that can’t handle hard-core criminals bothering to spend time and energy on deporting a local businessman who smoked a joint as a teenager and got into a bar fight in his 20s?

Will the forcible separation of Laura and Pearse McDermott make any of us safer? (She could go with him but wouldn’t want to leave the rest of her family). Will it make this a better country?

I’ll tell you what it will do. It will wreck a family. It will put some Americans that Pearse McDermott employs, not to mention those he subcontracts work to, out of work. For what?

Throughout this process, well-meaning people, even those working for the government, have told Laura McDermott she should get pregnant, because it would be less likely that her husband would be deported if they had a child.

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“The truth is, we’ve been trying to have a child for years now but have been unable,” Laura McDermott said.

They shouldn’t be punished for not being able to have a child.

What to do about illegal immigration in the US is a serious issue, one that is at the heart of the presidential debate that is about to shift into overdrive after the upcoming conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

But, at the end of the day, much of it comes down to discretion. Federal agents and agencies must have and must use discretion in deciding who merits attention and who merits deportation.

Deporting Pearse McDermott does not punish someone who cynically beat the system. Deporting him punishes someone who made a couple of mistakes when he was young and has done nothing but better himself and those around him ever since.

He should be the model, not the scapegoat.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.