In the News
By Mike Brownlee
A group of Republican senators from Iowa and Nebraska have introduced a law that would detain immigrants in the country illegally if they commit a crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.
Sarah’s Law is named in honor of Sarah Root, a 21-year-old Council Bluffs woman who died on Jan. 31 after her vehicle was hit by a drunk driver in the country illegally.
“We need (President Barack Obama’s) administration to step up and make sure they are enforcing the immigration acts that are in place,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who introduced the legislation with fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Nebraska Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse.
The law would amend the mandatory detention provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act to require the federal government to take custody of anyone who entered the country illegally, violated the terms of their immigration status or had their visa revoked and is thereafter charged with a crime resulting in the death or serious bodily injury of another person, according to a release.
The legislation also requires ICE to make reasonable efforts to identify and provide relevant information to the crime victims or their families.
“We’re happy with this bill,” said Scott Root, Sarah Root’s father. “You shouldn’t have to have a law for this. It should be a common-sense deal.”
Root was killed on the night of her graduation from Bellevue University. She was driving a 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada east on L Street at about 2:15 a.m. on Jan. 31 when her vehicle was rear-ended by a pickup truck driven by Edwin Mejia, according to the Omaha Police Department. Authorities said Mejia was involved in a street race.
Root died at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha. Police said Mejia – who doesn’t have a valid driver’s license – had a blood-alcohol content of .241 percent, more than three times the legal driving limit. Mejia, a citizen of Honduras, was in the country illegally.
Douglas County pretrial release officials graded him a low risk to flee, despite the fact that he had a warrant and twice had failed to appear in court. Local law enforcement asked ICE to place a federal detainer on Mejia, but the agency declined.
A day after Mejia’s bail was set by Douglas County Judge Jeff Marcuzzo, a family member of Mejia posted $5,000, 10 percent of his bail. Mejia hasn’t appeared at any of his subsequent court appearances or meetings with law enforcement, and the suspect remains at large.
Members of Congress from both Iowa and Nebraska have taken ICE to task for not detaining Mejia after the crash. Grassley, Ernst, Sasse and Fischer discussed the law during a conference call Thursday morning, saying the provision takes away ICE’s discretion on when to detain a suspect in certain cases.
“There’s nothing in this legislation that can take away the grief of Sarah’s family,” Sasse said. “What we can do is ensure that ICE never makes this ridiculous decision again.”
Sasse called ICE’s actions after Mejia’s arrest “ridiculous” and “a miscarriage of justice.”
“This shouldn’t happen again,” he told reporters. “They shouldn’t have discretion to not detain somebody who’s killed an American citizen.”
The quartet of senators said they hope to see bipartisan support of the legislation.
The bill is one “we all can rally around for the sake of the citizens of this country,” Fischer said.
The Republican senators have also blamed Obama for the administration’s approach to immigration law enforcement.
“This legislation must correct the shortcomings of this administration not adequately enforcing the law,” Grassley said.
In a letter recent letter to Ernst, ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale said that under the administration’s policies, individuals who do not fall into specific enforcement categories still can be detained if doing so would serve an “important federal interest.” He said Mejia could have been detained on that basis.
“I have made it clear to the ICE field offices that similarly situated aliens should be subject to enforcement action even if such aliens do not fall within the delineated priority categories, and (Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson) has reiterated this as well,” Ragsdale wrote. “I believe we could have done things differently to help ensure Edwin Mejia faces justice. I am committed to ensuring he does so.”
Ragsdale wrote that his agency continues to work with the Omaha Metro Fugitive Task Force to find and arrest Mejia.
Scott Root said the family is also looking into holding a fundraiser or two to fund hiring a private investigator to further track Mejia.
“As long as we’re breathing air, we’re going to be looking for this guy,” Scott Root said. “He’s going to get justice.”
The four senators on the conference call were confident the amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act will be approved by the Senate. It would then be subject to approval by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Scott Root called the law “a real big step in the right direction.”
“We’re happy with that. We’re happy with the local community support,” Sarah Root’s father said. “We’re still not done. We want justice for our family.
– The BH Media News Service contributed to this story.