Bissap Baobab owner Marco Senghor pleaded guilty today to making a false statement on an immigration-related document — a felony charge stemming from a marriage he entered in order to obtain his U.S. citizenship.
“First of all, whatever the circumstances, I accept full responsibility for the criminal acts I committed and apologize and feel deeply remorseful for making a false statement to the authorities and violating federal law,” Senghor said, reading from prepared remarks in the courtroom, after pleading guilty.
The guilty plea was part of a deal that erased two more serious charges that would have revoked Senghor’s U.S. citizenship upon conviction.
Senghor admitted to falsely claiming in 2009, while he was applying for his U.S. citizenship, that he lived with a woman from 1999 to 2003 — a woman to whom he was married for roughly that period of time.
Senghor had never lived with the woman, explained Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Boome. Senghor “had never met the woman until he married her,” and “had no contact with the woman after the ceremony.”
In today’s statement, Senghor said that he “foolishly allowed myself to wind up in the hands of a shady individual” as he was seeking to establish himself as a legal immigrant and American citizen.
“Later on,” he continued, “I sought help from another person who identified himself as an immigration lawyer and drafted a statement I later signed in violation of the law.”
Mission Local reported last month that Senghor was, indeed, married to a woman named Alice Ellison from 2000 to 2003.
During his divorce proceedings, he claimed not to know where Ellison lived, and offered only one possible address — not a residence, but the office of a service called Coppens Immigration on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Senghor, flanked by both his criminal defense attorneys and his immigration attorney, declined to comment outside the courtroom. He instead referred to his statements in the courtroom.
“I was confused, uncertain, and afraid of what I had done,” Senghor read to Judge William H. Orrick III. “I am sorry for my actions, and I even though it has been painful for me and my family, in a way, it is a great relief to be moving on.”
Senghor broke down in tears outside of the courthouse, embracing his family and friends.
It’s unclear what comes next. The charge to which Senghor pleaded guilty carries a maximum 10-year sentence in federal prison. That will be decided in August.
It’s also unclear how Orrick, an Obama appointee, will sentence Senghor, whose restaurant and dance hall is widely considered a positive community asset. Senghor, the son of a French mother and a Senegalese father, is hailed by supporters as the very definition of an immigrant success story.
Moreover, it’s possible Senghor could face a future civil denaturalization trial separate and apart from the now-settled criminal case.
But Marc Van Der Hout, Senghor’s immigration attorney, said he’s not anticipating such a development. “We’re hoping this is the end of it,” he told Mission Local in the courthouse lobby. “Bottom line.”
“I’m happy that the government has exercised its discretion to allow us to resolve this case in the manner in which they did,” said Jeffery Bornstein, Senghor’s defense attorney, “and I’m hopeful for the future.”
It was Bornstein’s office that engineered the deal that nullified the two original — and very serious — charges that Senghor illegally obtained his citizenship. Those charges would have automatically denaturalized Senghor if he was convicted.
Instead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Tuesday filed “superseding information” with the one charge of making a false statement.
“If his lawyers negotiated this, it’s a pretty good deal,” Matthew Hoppock, an immigration attorney who has handled several recent denaturalization cases, told Mission Local on Wednesday.
Senghor was arrested by federal authorities on August 1, 2018, as he walked down Mission Street. He pleaded guilty and was released on bail. He has since announced the closure of his iconic business.
In his statements to the judge, Senghor reminisced about the Mission District he arrived in 30 years ago — what he described as a “rough environment” and a place he wanted to make better.
“So, I worked very hard to establish my restaurant as a place where people from the neighborhood could come and feel safe and happy,” he said, “while sharing with them my own Senegalese culture in addition to other international cultures through music and food.”