Finding fault in the wrong place on immigration enforcement

Ruben Navarrette
Ruben Navarrette

A heinous crime in a California city recently gave the local police chief a soapbox, which he promptly stumbled over.

As the son of a retired cop, I might normally defend a law enforcement official who appears to be trying to keep the public safe.

Not this time. Not when it sounds as if the police chief wants to be a politician. Not when he gets so emotionally overwrought by a horrific act in his city – one allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant – that he accuses elected officials of making the problem of illegal immigration worse instead of looking closer to home. And not when the lawman ignores the obvious: Illegal immigrants are drawn not by welfare but by work. The states that suffer the most illegal immigration also benefit the most from the sweat of illegal immigrants.

California tops the list, with an agriculture industry that is almost completely dependent on an undocumented workforce and that generates more than $40 billion in annual revenue.

This includes the money earned from strawberry fields surrounding Santa Maria – a Central Coast city of about 100,000 people located about 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles that is home to many illegal immigrants.

Police Chief Ralph Martin rushed into the fray over illegal immigration after a local woman was brutally attacked and murdered.

Those facing charges include 29-year-old Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, an illegal immigrant who has been in trouble with the law before but escaped deportation. On July 24, Ramirez and another man, Jose Fernando Villagomez, allegedly broke into the home of Marilyn Pharis. The 64-year-old was sexually assaulted and pummeled with a hammer. She died eight days later. If these two men are found guilty, no punishment would be too severe.

Still, it was not honest or helpful for Martin to accuse elected officials of emptying out the prisons with laws that reduce sentences and end prolonged detention for less-serious crimes.

“I think it starts in Washington, D.C., with this administration that we see and their policies,” Martin said to reporters. “I think you can draw a direct line over to Sacramento with the policies of … I’m going to say this governor and the Legislature. … We’ve seen AB 109 pass. We’ve seen Prop. 47 pass. And I am not remiss to say that, from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, there is a blood trail into the bedroom of Marilyn Pharis.”

A blood trail? You had to go there. Just the facts, chief.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation quickly corrected the record, pointing out that the state’s prisons are now filled at about 135 percent of capacity.

AB 109 is a state law that allows those convicted of a nonserious, nonviolent, nonregistrable sex-offense felony to serve time within the county where the crime was committed instead of automatically going to state prison. Proposition 47 was a voter ballot initiative that reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor a number of nonviolent property and drug crimes.

In case you’re wondering what these laws have to with Pharis’ murder, I wondered that myself. Martin told reporters that, two weeks before the crime, his officers arrested Ramirez for possession of methamphetamine. He was placed in the county jail. Martin said the culprit was let go because county sheriffs are no longer allowed to keep people in jail on misdemeanors as they were in the past.

“That’s the problem with this system,” Martin said. “This is not just in Santa Maria. This is all over the state of California and all over the United States.”

Martin should mind his own city. He is in no position to know what’s happening with immigration enforcement “all over the United States.”

Law enforcement works only if the players all stay in their own lanes. And yet it sounds like Martin would like the authority to enforce federal immigration law. If so, he could attack the root of the problem and order his officers to arrest local employers – farmers, ranchers, restaurant managers, owners of construction firms – for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants in violation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Of course, while there is no pushback for attacking government, a dragnet at the Chamber of Commerce would strain community relations. So employers are left off the hook.

That’s true in Santa Maria, and – like the chief says – all over the United States.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is