Immigrant whose daughter appealed to pope requests asylum in U.S.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Mexican immigrant whose daughter appealed to Pope Francis three years ago to stop his deportation from the United States requested asylum at a federal court hearing in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Mario Vargas-Lopez’s attorney argued the 45-year-old could be the victim of violence if he is deported to Mexico because of the international attention his case has received.

“People in Mexico know who he is, and he might be targeted for ransom and extortion,” attorney Alex Galvez said in a phone interview after the hearing.

Vargas-Lopez was granted a hearing for Sept. 18 by Judge Rose Peters.

He entered the United States in 1999, his attorney said, and had worked in construction in Tennessee and California.

In September 2013, he was arrested in Tennessee on a drunken-driving charge and served a six-month sentence. On his release, he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held in its Louisiana facility.

Vargas-Lopez was released on bond in March 2014, three days after his then-10-year-old daughter, U.S.-born Jersey Vargas, made a plea to the pope as part of a delegation delivering letters to the pontiff from children of illegal immigrants.

As reported by the Catholic publication “The Tidings,” the girl told Pope Francis: “My father is suffering.”

Vargas-Lopez was subsequently reunited with his family in Los Angeles and has remained free. U.S. immigration officials denied at the time there was any papal intervention.

Galvez has argued that Vargas-Lopez’s family ties in the country and clean record since his 2014 release from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center should be taken into account in his request for asylum.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.

Jersey Vargas, now 13, was not at Wednesday’s hearing. (Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles)