Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Immigration talk is simple; the issue is not

In an address to the nation last week, President Barack Obama said he wants to deport “felons, not families.”

It was a signature line Obama used to justify changing federal immigration policies through an executive order – a move meant to spare nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Many of these are parents of legal residents. Meanwhile, thieves, rapists and other lawbreakers will continue to be deported.

Obama’s words sound good, but little in immigration law or policy is that straightforward.

We know all too well in Sacramento that criminals can get deported multiple times and then return to the U.S. to commit even more heinous crimes.

Two law enforcement officers – one from Sacramento County, one from Placer County – were killed last month and an undocumented immigrant with a lengthy rap sheet and more than one deportation on his record has been charged with the crimes.

The shooting deaths of those officers prompted Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to record a video plea directed at Obama last week that was critical of the president while imploring him to “do something” to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

By his own account, Jones took a lot of heat for calling out Obama directly.

Having talked with Jones last week, there is no doubting his sincerity. He just lost a brother officer horribly gunned down, without warning, on a sunny weekday morning.

Jones is trying to be there for the widow of Deputy Danny Oliver, a popular, longtime fixture in his department. Jones is trying to lift the spirits of Oliver’s grieving partner and fellow deputies while also doing right by a Placer County Sheriff’s Department mourning the loss of Detective Michael Davis Jr.

“If I didn’t do anything … I would have looked back with regret that I didn’t use the platform I was given by the voters of Sacramento County,” Jones said.

More than anything, Jones faults Obama for not using his executive authority to move federal prosecutors toward more aggressive prosecutions and incarcerations of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes in the U.S.

The implication is that more aggressive prosecution of undocumented immigrants might have prevented the Oct. 24 crime spree allegedly carried out by Luis Enrique Monroy-Bracamontes, a Mexican national deported twice for crimes committed in the U.S., once as far back as 1997.

“He’s a felon returning to our county,” said Jones of the suspect. “He should be held to account.”

Like Obama’s, Jones’ words are well intentioned.

But again, nothing in current immigration law or policy is that clear-cut.

The fact is that Monroy-Bracamontes was prosecuted and incarcerated and deported – twice. He was not treated hospitably by the U.S. government.

Even Jones admits that Monroy-Bracamontes was “nothing special” before allegedly killing two peace officers and terrorizing a region before being arrested. Prosecutors make choices, and this man, based on his prior crimes, would have fallen into a gray area – one where he wasn’t at the bottom or the top of prosecutorial priorities. Such men are generally quickly deported.

Jones wants the feds to be tougher now, but the fact is that since Monroy-Bracamontes was originally deported, the feds have made returning more difficult for men like him.

A report from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center recently cited stepped-up measures that include expedited removals. Those measures, implemented by the Border Patrol since 2005, include a variety of strategies.

“These include criminally charging immigrants apprehended at the border with unlawful reentry and increasing the use of expedited removals (which do not require a judicial review),” according to the report. “And for those immigrants who are apprehended at the border and removed, the Border Patrol has used remote repatriation as an additional strategy, sending deported immigrants to border ports many miles away from where they were apprehended. … These strategies are intended to break the smuggling cycle and deter an apprehended immigrant from attempting further illegal entries into the U.S.”

Jones wants the increased border security as part of immigration reform, but the fact is the border security has been greatly increased in the last decade. The Obama administration spends roughly $18 billion a year on border enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Already, more of the 2,000-mile Mexican border is under surveillance than ever before with a greatly enhanced Border Patrol, surveillance drones and other militarized enforcement tactics.

Was Jones wrong to speak out against Obama? No. Considering what he and his department have endured, he has every right to feel frustrated with a broken immigration system.

The irony is that Obama and Jones agree on the essence of immigration reform. “A pathway to citizenship, a work program, a visa program, I’m a fan of all of those,” Jones told me. He also said he believes the majority of undocumented immigrants are hardworking people just trying to make lives for themselves. “The undocumented population is not committing crimes at a higher rate,” Jones said.

Ultimately, Jones’ criticism of Obama is more poignant than pointed. If more Republicans agreed with Jones on a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, Obama might have signed immigration reform into law by now.

What’s less clear is whether this would have changed the tragic events that inspired Jones to reach out to Obama in the first place.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.