Sacramento shooting case sparks debate over U.S. immigration policies

People walk along the beach in Tijuana, Mexico, where metal bars marking the border with the United States at the sea.
People walk along the beach in Tijuana, Mexico, where metal bars marking the border with the United States at the sea. The Associated Press

Critics of U.S. immigration policy have seized on the shooting spree that left two Sacramento area sheriff’s deputies dead last week as evidence that the federal government has failed to secure the border with Mexico. The man accused in the killings, Luis Enrique Monroy-Bracamontes, is a Mexican national who authorities say was convicted on drug charges in Arizona and who twice returned to the U.S. after being deported.

Monroy-Bracamontes used multiple identities and obtained a driver’s certificate in Utah, where he was living when he and his wife traveled to Sacramento. As a convicted felon, Monroy-Bracamontes was barred from owning weapons. But he allegedly used an AR-15 asssault rifle and a 9 mm pistol in a series of shootings and carjackings that started at a Motel 6 on Arden Way and ended in Auburn, where he and his wife, Janelle Marquez Monroy, were arrested.

The case has prompted a flurry of press releases and denunciations on conservative TV and talk radio. “Illegal Alien Murders Two Cops,” screamed the headline on the press release issued by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which claims 250,000 members nationwide, 41,000 of them in California.

One of the loudest voices on immigration issues, Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, said his agency had arrested Monroy-Bracamontes four times in Arizona between 1996 and 2001. He has issued a press release calling for a congressional hearing into the case.

“The history surrounding this one illegal immigrant exposes the inherent dishonesty and ineptitude surrounding the federal government approach to illegal immigration,” Arpaio said.

The Sacramento-based nonprofit Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which claims 5,000 contributors, called for an unbroken line of enforcement, including fences wherever possible, along the border. “The idea that deportation means anything is disproved by what happened last Friday,” said Michael Rushford, the group’s president.

More moderate voices on immigration reform say it’s simplistic, and inaccurate, to blame the federal government for failing to keep Monroy-Bracamontes from re-entering the country. “Using this tragedy to advance one’s political agenda is predictable, but still troubling,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law.

“This is a horrible tragedy, and yet the government did what it was supposed to do,” Johnson said. “It deported him on a couple of occasions, and yet he was able to return and live under the radar.”

Since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, deportations have increased substantially. The administration has focused much of its effort on criminals. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, said that in fiscal 2012 and 2013, it deported 440,000 people who had previously been convicted of a crime – about 60 percent of the people deported in that time frame.

Neither this administration nor previous ones have been able to stop many of those deported from getting back into the country, however. The nonprofit Migration Policy Institute says 1.1 million people removed from the country between 2003 and 2010 had previously been deported.

“Every time Monroy-Bracamontes was in (Department of Homeland Security) custody he was deported,” said Marc Rosenblum, a researcher with the institute. In the last five years, he said, the department, which oversees ICE, has strengthened its enforcement network with the Secure Communities program, under which suspects’ fingerprints submitted to the FBI by local authorities are automatically forwarded to ICE to see if there’s a match.

“This case is not a failure of a particular DHS program,” Rosenblum said.

Johnson of UC Davis argues that the immigration reform bill scuttled by conservatives in Congress would have helped keep out alleged criminals such as Monroy-Bracamontes. The bill would have offered legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, at the same time that it would have boosted border security. It also would have created identification cards for undocumented immigrants with no criminal history – potentially making it easier to flag those with criminal offenses on their records, he said.

At this point, very little is publicly known about how and when Monroy-Bracamontes moved between Mexico and the United States. One of his Facebook identities and a tattoo on his chest indicate he comes from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico, although officials have said they have no evidence to indicate he has ties to the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel.

Federal and local law enforcement agencies have released scant information about his criminal history, how he lived unnoticed in Salt Lake City and what he was doing in Sacramento. According to ICE, he was deported in 1997 following his arrest and conviction in Phoenix of possession of narcotics for sale. He was arrested again in 2001 and deported a second time.

Arpaio’s office says Monroy-Bracamontes, who spent four months in Arpaio’s tent city jail before being deported in 1997, was also arrested in 1998 on drugs and weapons charges but apparently not deported at that time. The federal immigration agency says there is no record of the 1998 arrest in the National Crime Information Center database. Such notification would have triggered another deportation. Local law enforcement officials are responsible for entering that information.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice defended the agency this week, saying the federal NCIC database “is only as good as the information that’s put into it by local authorities.”

Monroy-Bracamontes had numerous traffic violations in Utah, according to published reports, but there’s nothing in the suspect’s NCIC printout about any arrests in Utah, federal officials say. In June 2011, the suspect got a Utah Driving Privilege Card under the name Marcelo Marquez, said Dwayne Baird, Public Safety Officer for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

“This was prior to the law that came into effect July 2011 that required we take his fingerprints and gather more effective information, and the Driving Privilege Card expired a year after he got it and he never renewed it,” Baird said.

Monroy-Bracamontes was using the name Marcelo Marquez when he was arrested here last Friday.

In general, there’s no consensus on whether immigrants commit more or fewer crimes than others. Illegal immigrants make up about 8 percent of California’s population, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2008, they were about 10 percent of the inmates in California state prisons, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The same groups pointing to the Monroy-Bracamontes case as a symptom of failed U.S. immigration policies say recent policy changes by California and some other states could make it easier for illegal immigrants to remain in the state after they commit crimes. These include a new state law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and a state directive – known as the Trust Act – to local jails to stop honoring “holds” put on lower-level offenders by federal immigration authorities.

From Oct. 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014, the number of undocumented immigrants transferred from local to federal custody in California plunged 53 percent compared with the previous fiscal year, federal authorities said. ICE officials say a number of jurisdictions in California – along with other parts of the country – no longer honor any ICE detainers, not only because of the Trust Act but also due to jail realignment, which has transferred responsibility for lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Sam Stanton contributed to this report.

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