October 22, 2008

Deported suspects return to Metro Jail

Screening program once caught suspect in slaying

By Janell Ross

When a hard-working Indian immigrant was shot in his Nashville store in September, Metro police identified the primary suspect as Edgar Rodriguez, a 19-year-old Mexican national.

But perhaps more surprising than the crime itself — Rodriguez had been arrested, screened though Davidson County's 287g immigration program and deported from the United States less than a year before.

The program gives local law enforcement agencies power to identify illegal immigrants who have been arrested and put them on the path to deportation.

But of the 4,235 people processed through the program since it launched in March 2007, 73 ended up back in the Metro Jail, accused of more crimes.

That's a return-to-jail rate far lower than the 70 percent of the jail's general population, said Sheriff Daron Hall, who brought the program to Davidson County. The Rodriguez case typifies both the potential of 287g to prevent serious crime and the failings of the broader immigration system, Hall said.

He said the program aims to remove illegal immigrants from the city and, by doing so, prevent crime.

"What I can't control is what is going to happen at the border and maybe what's driving an attraction back to this community," Hall said.

The program's detractors say it's making immigrants, legal and illegal, feel unwelcome and driving some to endure dangerous situations because they fear any contact with police will lead to a 287g screening session at the jail.

Traffic violations are the primary offense that snare most illegal immigrants processed through 287g. Of the 73 listed as re-offending, 36 were arrested on traffic violations, altering a title or registration or failure to appear in court and 37 for more serious offenses, including DUI, drug possession and assault.

They come back because the poverty and related problems in their native lands are still there, said Nashville immigration lawyer Mario Ramos. Many come back to relatives, homes, bank accounts and jobs.

Plus, Ramos said, they've already learned how to get into the U.S. without authorization.

"(The Rodriguez) case sounds like a terrible tragedy but just points out how flawed our entire immigration system, including 287g, really is," said Ramos, who has practiced immigration law for 17 years.

In Davidson County, every foreign national brought to the jail is booked and interviewed by federally trained sheriff's deputies. Those suspected of entering the country illegally are brought to the attention of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE holds those individuals, and in most cases sends them to Oakdale, La., for an immigration court hearing and deportation.

Neither side is wrong

The Rodriguez case challenges Hall's claims that 287g is making Nashville safer, said Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

"It's clear that from this case that local immigration enforcement initiatives are a fairly weak tool, considering the dire need for comprehensive reform of our immigration system," he said.

"What we have been saying all along to the sheriff is that you can try to make our little corner of the world right, but it won't work … if the immigration courts don't work and the legal immigration system doesn't work."

Hall's analysis isn't wrong but neither is Fotopulos', said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that supports more restrictive immigration policy.

"It's been very effective, but 287g isn't a silver bullet," Krikorian said. "It looks to me like the local authorities are doing what they can, but the federal authorities need to step up on their end and institute some real reform across the system."

Immigration policy is seldom a topic on the campaign trail since the race for president began last year. Congressional reform efforts have failed to gain traction time and again.

The United States' southwestern border, the roughly 1,950-mile area between San Diego, Calif. and Brownsville, Texas, is protected by a combination of agents, technology and fencing that is being strengthened each month, said Jason Ciliberti, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection supervisory agent based in Washington, D.C.

For example, in September 2007, there were 11,032 border patrol agents working the southwest sector. As of Sept. 13, there were 15,299 agents working the same area, Ciliberti said.

"Our national strategy really focuses on us getting the correct mixture of people, technology — sensors, lighting, unmanned aircraft — and infrastructure such as the wall and roads in place," he said. "That's what we are really focusing on."

Neither the U.S. Border Patrol nor ICE maintains comprehensive records indicating the total number of people deported from the United States who were subsequently caught attempting to return or who have returned.

Suspect was deported

But local and federal records provide enough information to piece together Rodriguez's story. In August 2007, Rodriguez was stopped and arrested by Metro Police for driving without a license. Rodriguez had been ticketed twice before for the same offense.

At the jail, he was flagged as a possible illegal immigrant by sheriff's deputies and subsequently detained and deported by ICE on Oct. 30.

In February, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended Rodriguez attempting to enter the U.S. illegally near San Diego. The next time he came to law enforcement's attention was when he appeared on the surveillance tape recorded inside Shah's Discount Beer Market, located near Old Hickory Boulevard and Nolensville Pike, said Don Aaron, a Metro police spokesman.

Rodriguez's mother and fingerprints lifted at the Sept. 19 crime scene ultimately identified Rodriguez as the man police say shot store owner Vinod Shah, said Aaron.

Rodriguez hasn't been arrested, and Aaron said investigators suspect he is in Mexico. The FBI is working on a federal warrant for his arrest.

Neither his mother nor Shah's family responded to requests for comment.

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