Loophole closed for illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes

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by DAVID SCHECHTER

Bio | Email | Follow: @davidschechter

WFAA

Posted on June 23, 2010 at 12:57 AM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

They are accused child rapists, drug dealers and thieves. And because of major reforms in the justice system — spurred by a News 8 investigation — those people now face prosecution.

As recently as November, because of a loophole in the law, many would have simply been set free without ever going to trial.

Until it was fixed, the loophole allowed for the deportation of accused criminals — and a breakdown in the justice system.

We introduced you to "Sylvia" back in November. While she is an American citizen, her husband, Jose Salvador Tinajero, is Mexican.

He had just been deported instead of prosecuted for molesting her two children.

"There is no justice," Sylvia said last year, "especially for my girls, my family. There is none."

Today, she is simply overwhelmed at the progress that's been made.

News 8 first broke the story that more than 1,000 illegal immigrants who were charged with serious crimes like murder  had been deported before their cases ever went to trial.

Many were bused back to Mexico and simply set free across the border.

In November, we spoke to Sgt. Ernesto Fierro, an investigator for the Dallas County District Attorney's office. At the time, little was being done to fix the problem, and Fierro said he was "furious" about it.

Buena Valentin is a Mexican citizen charged with raping his girlfriend's seven-year-old daughter. After the attack on the girl — and her sister — they immediately ran to church for help.

"She looked really bad. Very bad," said Eleuterio Cabrera of Templo de Dios. "She was crying. The girls were very, very, very bad. It was horrible."

What was the problem?

After an arrest, the district attorney's office was usually not notified until a case had been in the system for several weeks. In that gap of time, the accused paid his bond.

Then — because the suspect was in the U.S. illegally — he was turned over to ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The job of that agency is to deport, regardless of pending charges.

Now, however, because of News 8 reports, those holes in the system are all plugged, and Sgt. Ernesto Fierro has a new, full-time assignment: Keeping people like Buena Valentin in jail.

"I feel great; I feel really good," Fierro said. "I feel like I've really done something here."

And the 90 crime suspects in Fierro's book will remain incarcerated in the Dallas County jail until their cases are settled.

"Many of them would've been on the bus back to their home country," Fierro said, without the changes to the system.

Two big fixes are:

  • A mandatory $100,000 bond for anyone who is a flight risk due to possible deportation. In some cases, that's a 20-fold increase.
     
  • Improved communication and cooperation between Dallas County and ICE.

"I appreciate you guys highlighting," said Nuria Prendes, the top ICE agent in Dallas. "If we're not made aware of things, there's no way we can fix them."

ICE and the county are now in daily contact, keeping accused criminals in jail — and off the southbound bus.

"It's worked incredibly well," said Anthony Robinson, the Dallas County District Attorney's chief investigator. "I would really like to see it be a model in other cities."

Federal officials say one in four felony defendants are in the U.S. illegally. News 8 has attempted to find out how many are deported before trial, but no government agency tracks the issue, and privacy rules have impeded our efforts to learn more.

Still, there is strong evidence the loophole does exists nationwide. We found cases in Florida, Massachusetts and New York.

Is there an opportunity to use the Dallas experience as a model for other parts of the country?

"It has been shared," Prendes said. "What we're doing in Dallas has been shared with headquarters, and they are looking at it. They are putting some procedures in place so that everyone is on the same sheet of music."

For a problem that few in Dallas County even knew existed eight months ago, the reforms here have been quick — and the results are tangible, and certainly worth emulating — for the sake of justice, and for the sake of victims.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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