CONCORD — Alain Ata saw the Governor and Executive Council as his last hope to avoid deportation to Lebanon, a country he left as child with his family, all of whom are now naturalized U.S. citizens.
Those hopes were dashed on Wednesday, as the council voted to deny the owner of Ataboys Auto Service in Manchester a pardon on burglary charges from 2004.
A pardon would have set the stage for Ata to apply for citizenship and avoid deportation, but three of the five councilors were opposed.
Councilors Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, and Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, voted against granting the pardon, while councilor Mike Cryans, D-Hanover, was the lone vote in favor.
Ata's biggest supporter on the council, Republican Councilor Russell Prescott of Kingston, abstained from the vote after failing to gain enough support for a tabling motion.
Volinsky had previously voted with Prescott and Cryans to schedule a pardon hearing, which took place on April 10.
The two-hour hearing included tearful testimony from Ata's sister as well as an employee whom Ata helped recover from opioid addiction, and a pastor who attested to his rehabilitation. The Rockingham County Attorney and a representative of the Salem Police Department testified in opposition.
Ata appealed to the council for clemency, saying, "If I were to be deported I would be torn from everything I love, the business I built, my daughter and my fiancée who means the world to me. I wouldn't be here to support my family and I would end up in a country I left as a 10-year-old … A country where I have no friends, no family and a grim future."
His immigration status has been at issue since he was convicted in 2004, just after his 20th birthday, on charges of burglary, conspiracy and receiving stolen property in connection with two break-ins in Salem, for which he served more than two years in state prison.
In addition to the burglary and related charges, Ata's record includes two convictions in 2008 for threatening, a conviction in 2013 for OUI with serious bodily injury and a 2017 charge of violating the Abuse Prevention Act that was dismissed without a finding.
Prescott said the offenses that occurred in 2008, 2013 and 2017 were concerning, but should not disqualify Ata from applying for citizenship.
"I know he did spend time in jail, and from my view of the situation I believe that had a rehabilitative effect on him," said Prescott. "I believe he has paid his debt to society."
Volinsky said he voted to schedule the hearing to allow Ata to make his case, and out of a concern over "some real shortcomings in our immigration system that require deportation in circumstances like this."
"Although I have severe concerns about how the immigration laws work, in this instance to exercise my constitutional responsibilities, I will vote against a pardon," Volinsky said, citing Ata's more recent arrests.
"One of them was being intoxicated 50 percent above the legal limit and causing a crash that resulted in serious injury to himself and his fiancée," he said.
"The burglary and criminal threatening charges all related to his anger with his former girlfriend, the mother of his child. Most recently, he was accused of violating a domestic violence order by contacting the mother of the child. It did not result in a criminal conviction because the parties worked it out, but he still violated the order in a way, to my mind, to intimidate the mother who was seeking protection from the court."
Ata was present for the vote, but left the council chambers immediately afterward and declined to comment on the decision, saying only "Thank you, everyone" as he entered an elevator.
At his pardon hearing, Ata told councilors he expects a deportation order in place for more than a decade to now be enforced, given current directives from the White House on immigration, "as soon as Lebanon gets its paperwork in order."