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Joint Statement by Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Hearing: “The Real Victims of a Reckless and Lawless Immigration Policy: Families and Survivors Speak Out on the Real Cost of This Administration’s Policies.”

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, and Members of the Committee,

We appreciate the opportunity to submit for the record a joint statement to honor our constituent, Ms. Sarah Root, who lost her life because of a drunk driver in the country illegally.  The Senators from Nebraska, Senator Sasse and Senator Fischer, join us in honoring Ms. Root as well.

Today, her mother, Michelle Root, will share her personal story about the loss of her daughter and how someone in the country illegally was able to walk free after fatally hitting her daughter’s vehicle on graduation night. 

Sarah was 21 years old, and had just graduated from Bellevue University with perfect grades and an interest in pursuing a career in criminal justice. In the words of her family, “she was full of life and ready to take on the world.” According to a close friend of hers, Sarah was smart, outgoing, and dedicated to her friends and family. She embodied the words tattooed on her skin: Live, Laugh, Love.

The day Sarah graduated, she was struck by a drunk driver in the country illegally. The alleged drunk driver was Eswin Mejia, who had a blood-alcohol content of more than three times the legal limit.  Mejia was charged with felony motor-vehicle homicide and operating a vehicle while intoxicated on February 3.

After causing the death of an American citizen and being charged with felony motor-vehicle homicide, one would think he would clearly meet U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s so-called “Enforcement Priorities.”  Unfortunately and shamefully, that was not the case. 

After the crash, local law enforcement apparently asked the federal government – specifically U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – to take custody of Mejia, but the federal government declined. An ICE spokesman stated that the agency did not lodge a detainer on the man because his arrest for felony motor-vehicle homicide “did not meet ICE’s enforcement priorities.”

In responding to questions about ICE’s failure to lodge a detainer during a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña actually suggested that ICE neglected to issue a detainer because at the time they were contacted, Sarah Root was seriously injured, not dead.

How twisted and convoluted has our immigration system become that an illegal immigrant who – while driving drunk and drag racing – hits and either seriously injures or kills an American citizen is not considered a priority for deportation?

In fact, only after a floor speech, multiple letters, and hearing questions from Senators from Nebraska and Iowa, as well as media attention and concerns raised by the Root family, did ICE finally acknowledge that they should have taken Mejia into custody.

Tragically, after ICE declined to file a detainer against Mejia, he posted a $5,000 bond, was released, and has since disappeared.

This case has shed light on the breakdown between the federal government and state and local government.  It has also showcased – in heartbreaking fashion – why the President’s policies don’t work, and how they are having a dire effect on American families like the Root family.  

Under the Obama Administration’s Enforcement Priorities, a person in the country illegally will only be detained or removed in a few limited circumstances.

In this case, these so-called “priorities” resulted in a tragedy. A smart young lady who had a bright future was struck by a drunk driver who entered the country illegally, and ICE declined to take custody of him.

While America has been and always will be a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws.

It is a privilege to live in this country, and anyone who comes here illegally and harms our citizens should – without question – constitute a priority for removal.

For ICE to decide otherwise is baffling. In recognition of their clear mistake, they have since listed Mejia on their “Most Wanted” list and acknowledged they should have taken him into custody.

While nothing can bring Sarah back, her family and friends deserve clear answers as to why Mejia was allowed to flee.

And for the countless other families who are suffering today because of their personal losses, they deserve our commitment that the U.S. Government will enforce the law.  Things have to change.  The President must rethink his policies and seriously reconsider his so-called “priorities” so that tragedies like this one are not replicated elsewhere.  

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