Venezuelan exile activist accused of immigration fraud fires lawyer

In an unexpected twist, a Venezuelan exile community activist — who is accused of trying to flee to Caracas to avoid prosecution for alleged immigration fraud — on Tuesday fired her lawyer and asked the judge for more time to decide whether to plead guilty or go to trial.

U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles agreed to reset the case until April to give Maylin Silva time to discuss her options with her new lawyer.

The development marked a dramatic shift in a case that has drawn considerable attention in the Venezuelan exile community where Silva is well known. Before being arrested and charged, Silva headed a group opposed to the Venezuelan government called Todos por Venezuela, All for Venezuela, and frequently appeared in rallies here and in New York calling for democracy in the South American nation. Silva was also known as someone who assisted undocumented Venezuelan immigrants seek asylum or residence.

Silva, 64, was in Miami federal court because she had initially agreed to change her plea to guilty, but may have changed her mind again over the weekend when she told her private attorney, Robert Michael Pérez, that she wanted a new lawyer.

She confirmed that in open court when she told the judge in a firm voice: “I don’t want him.”

Silva sat in a wheelchair and did not rise to speak at the podium when the judge asked her questions. She was dressed in a detainee’s khaki uniform.

Silva has been in detention since federal agents on Nov. 2 arrested her just moments before attempting to board an American Airlines flight to Caracas, where she intended to hide after a grand jury in Miami charged her with conspiracy to “encourage aliens” to reside illegally in the United States through fraudulent applications for immigration benefits, according to court records.

The indictment in the case says that from July 2005 to December 2014, Silva prepared several allegedly fraudulent immigration applications. She was initially arrested in New York, but the court there freed her on bond and allowed her to travel to Miami with the condition of reporting to federal court here to be prosecuted. Instead, she discarded the electronic ankle bracelet she was wearing and bought a ticket to Venezuela.

Silva told the judge Tuesday why she needed more time to think about how to proceed in her case.

“Please, your honor, from the beginning I had not really wanted to go to trial, but I need more time for negotiations, to be sure how to proceed because my life is at stake here,” Silva said Tuesday.

Judge Gayles asked Silva whether she could afford a private attorney, and Silva said no. Gayles then agreed to appoint a federal public defender as her new attorney.

Gayles also scrapped the plea hearing and reset the case for trial in April.