A former North Dakota State College of Science basketball player from Algeria who pleaded guilty to racking up thousands of dollars in international phone bills on a school-issued calling card now faces deportation.
Touhumi Ghazoul, 21, who was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in late April, was being held in the Elk River, Minn., jail.
Ghazoul pleaded guilty in February to misdemeanor theft of property for making calls on the school calling card last summer. He spent 10 days in jail with the rest of a one-year sentence suspended and was ordered to repay more than $36,000. His lawyer, Don Krassin, has said that Ghazoul did not understand the long-distance rates.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency considers a theft conviction with a one-year sentence an aggravated felony, spokesman Tim Counts said. Under federal law, someone with a temporary visa who is convicted of an aggravated felony is deported and does not have the right to a hearing, he said.
“You’re welcome to come to the United States as a guest, but if you commit crimes in this country, the deal is off, you go home,” Counts said.
Krassin said he thought that if Ghazoul pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, he would not be deported.
“I think it’s outrageous,” he said. “To me, there are so many other things immigration could be doing than taking someone like this.”
NDSCS faculty member Harvey Henderson called the situation “tragic,” saying Ghazoul was on track to complete most of his coursework and had an offer to play basketball at the University of Idaho.
The case led the National Junior College Athletic Association to put the Science men’s basketball program on probation for one year. Head coach Craig Irwin, who was suspended by the school in October, resigned after the season. The school said Irwin violated North Dakota State Board of Higher Education policy with his role in the case.
Irwin gave Ghazoul the calling card number so he could stay in touch with Ghazoul while the player was at a basketball camp in Oklahoma. Authorities say Ghazoul continued using the number to make national and international calls after he returned home. Court records say he made 395 calls, and the college was charged an average of $9.80 per minute.
“(Ghazoul) admits what he did was wrong,” said Henderson, who advises international students on campus. “But he had no idea of the dollar amount, I’m sure.”
“We took advantage of a kid who played basketball,” Henderson said. “I felt that ever since he arrived here.”
Documents show that Ghazoul signed a letter of intent in mid-November to play for the University of Idaho. Idaho assistant coach Mike Score declined comment on Ghazoul. Irwin also declined comment.
It could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks for arrangements to be made to fly Ghazoul back to Algeria, Counts said.
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