Border is a revolving doorway

Sunday, October 29, 2006

By Ron Sylvester
The Wichita Eagle

Marcos Ramires-Ramires hunched down in his chair last week in the federal courthouse in Wichita.

He stared at his lap as interpreter LuAnn Rivera relayed what a judge, a prosecutor and his lawyer all said about his future in a language he didn’t understand. He looked like a lost kid.

None of them was certain how old he is. Nor could they depend on cooperat ion from Ramires, who seemed more content to stay in the Butler County jail than to return to his impoverished village in Guatemala.

The United States government had already sent Ramires back there once, only to have him turn up again two months later on a highway in Kansas.

To the agents of Wichita ICE – the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – it seems that just when they finish processing one group, the phone rings again. Another “load” awaits pickup.

The July 16 call to Senior Special Agent Mark Larkin was like numerous others to ICE. The resulting case shows the pattern of illegal immigration in Kansas – and what local authorities are doing about it.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Merl Ney had spotted two identical 1997 Chevrolet Astro minivans with Arizona tags roaring east on I-70 near Russell.

He pulled them over. The vehicles, built for seven, each carried 15 people. Receipts found in the vans showed one had been in Phoenix on July 13 and the other in nearby Mesa on July 14. The drivers and their passengers claimed the vans were not traveling together.

Among those stopped at mile marker 185 was a boyish fellow who gave his name as Yovani Gomez-De Leon. He carried a Mexican birth certificate showing him to be 17 – a juvenile.

The next day, he and the others in the group went for another ride: 160 miles in an ICE van, from their temporary detention at the Russell National Guard Armory to Wichita.

At the Wichita ICE office on Third Street, across from City Hall, Larkin questioned the validity of Gomez-De Leon’s birth certificate.

A dollop of Wite-Out covered the date of birth. The “8″ in 1988 appeared to have been written by hand with a pen. The official issue date was four years before the date of birth.

Gomez-De Leon’s fingerprint matched one on file in a federal database. It belonged to an adult deported to Guatemala in May.

An organized crime

The Wichita office of ICE will process passengers this year from places such as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

They cross the Great Plains, stacked like firewood into Ford F-150s, shielded from view by camper shells, or stuffed like packing crates into minivans.

Sometimes, ICE won’t find them until a wheel comes off a vehicle, or the driver falls asleep, and the crash injures or kills his passengers. Other times, agents will find an abandoned group wandering a desolate strip of U.S. 56, which slices Kansas diagonally from Elkhart to Kansas City.

On a good day, ICE agents might turn up a van with a passenger list scrawled on a piece of notebook paper tucked into the glove compartment.

One such slip recovered earlier this month showed each person being charged $1,000 for cargo class. They’d paid $600 up front, with the rest due at their destinations in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina or Florida. According to the invoice, this driver stood to pocket $8,700.

Immigration detectives are slowly uncovering details of a massive organized crime network, which they say includes many small entrepreneurs making money off the smuggling of migrant labor. Travel brokers, crossing guides and drivers all get a cut.

Law-enforcement officers have busted secret “stash houses” in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, crammed with immigrants waiting for their next ride. Often they wait for days, sometimes without food and water. Earlier this month, 51 people were found in a three-bedroom home in south Texas.

Some will pay up to $3,000 to ride in the back of a van with no seats. They don’t stop for bathroom breaks. They just pass a bucket. Earlier this year, a sick woman died after being abandoned at an I-70 rest stop in Gove County.

“These are bad guys, and they have no regard for human life,” said Carl Rusnok, an ICE spokesman from Dallas.

In other states, ICE is investigating reports that employers place orders for loads of illegal workers and pay for their delivery. Some immigrants are greeted by bosses demanding the balance due for travel expenses, investigators say. If friends or family can’t come through, the new arrival will work off the debt through slavery.

Assistant U.S. Attorney for Kansas Brent Anderson, who spends 80 percent of his workday prosecuting crimes related to immigration, has yet to find drivers willing to give up the names of those who hire them.

“We are often just left with the victims,” he said.

The ‘A-file’

When a van arrives at ICE, everyone gets their picture taken and gives an electronic, or biometric, fingerprint. Agents interview each person and fill out ICE Form 213, a “Record of Deportable/Inadmissible Alien.” The information goes into an Alien File, or “A-File” as the ICE agents call it, for anyone found to be illegally in the United States.

The A-File goes into a computer program, IDENT – the Department of Homeland Security’s Automatic Biometric Identification System.

That’s how Larkin learned that Yovani Gomez-De Leon wasn’t who he claimed to be.

When IDENT recognized the fingerprint, a file – including a photograph – popped up on the computer screen .

It said the man in the picture was:

– Marcos Ramires-Ramires.

– Age 19, not 17.

– A citizen of Guatemala, not Mexico.

– Previously deported, on May 13.

Juveniles pose logistical problems for authorities in places like Kansas, and the smugglers and passengers know it. Only a handful of federal facilities are equipped to detain minors, in cities such as Chicago, Phoenix and San Diego.

Agents have seen children as young as 5 traveling by themselves on the smuggling trips.

Undocumented Latino immigrants picked up along America’s highways would like ICE to think they are from Mexico. It’s much quicker, and less expensive, to slip back across the border from Mexico than to begin their journey again from Central America.

Ramires had traveled 1,600 miles from his home in Guatemala, through Mexico, across the border to Arizona and into the heart of America.

The court system

Most of those caught will never see a criminal indictment.

Many will go to Kansas City for processing in civil immigration court. They will be given deportation papers and put on one of the airplanes or buses that leave every Friday. Many more will return home voluntarily, with no court orders marring their record.

Others will face criminal charges. In Kansas, Anderson estimates 200 cases involving undocumented foreign nationals will enter federal courthouse files this year, a 60 percent increase over last year.

This past Monday saw Anderson running between the three federal district judges for plea and sentencing hearings. A couple of slots on his schedule showed him having to be in two courtrooms at the same time.

“And at this point, all we’re being is reactive,” he said.

People who have been deported after they’ve been convicted of a felony, and who then return to the United States, are considered the priority for Anderson ‘s boss, U.S. Attorney for Kansas Eric Melgren.

Those cases pose the greatest risk to public safety, Anderson said. They include Oscar Munoz-Martinez, who was in federal court last week with a Mexican gang tattoo on the back of his neck and shackles on his wrists and legs. U.S. marshals said there’d been some trouble on the bus from the Butler County Jail.

After he was convicted in Finney County for possession of cocaine and aggravated battery – he beat another man with brass knuckles – he had been sent back to Mexico. Eight months later, Martinez was in Garden City. He now faces two to five years in federal prison.

Fake IDs

Illegal immigrants who stay out of trouble need papers to work.

To get them, they must break the law.

Illegal immigrants bound for Kansas often work in meat-packing and poultry plants or do manual labor for small companies. Those companies have payroll taxes and require Social Security numbers.

Most of the time, Anderson said, the illegal worker uses a Social Security number belonging to a real person.

“If you get audited by the IRS because someone stole your Social Security number to work at a meat-packing plant in southwest Kansas, that can make you mad,” he said.

After prosecuting fewer than a dozen such cases in 2005, Anderson has more than 30 this year.

If it weren’t for plea bargains, the courts wouldn’t be able to handle all the criminal immigration cases on file. Plea bargains mean less prison time and allow the deportation process to work faster.

Federal identity-theft laws, for example, carry a mandatory two-year prison sentence. In most pleas, the government agrees to drop the identity-theft charge if the defendant agrees to accept a 13-month sentence.

The time frame is important.

Anyone illegally in the United State who nets more than a year in prison is guilty of an aggravated felony under immigration laws.

If they are then deported, they are barred for life from returning to the United States.

If they return, they face the crime of returning as a convicted felon, and a minimum of two years in prison.

“When they come back, because most of them do, and when they get caught, and sooner or later they will, it’s a slam-dunk conviction for a crime that can get them two years, and many times three or four years,” Anderson said.

Marcos Ramires-Ramires had no criminal record. He faced a lesser charge of illegal re-entry after deportation.

Then a federal judge decided Ramires had lied, which is against the law.

That opened the door to charges of identity theft and giving false informat ion to federal authorities. A conviction could lead to him never being able to legally live in the United States.

Fleeing poverty

Marcos Ramires-Ramires’ mother still lives in the Buena Vista area of Ixchiguan in the western mountains of Guatemala.

But there’s little else waiting back home.

When Hurricane Stan hit a year ago, mudslides washed out many of the homes in the area where Ramires’ family lives.

Mud is what houses are made of; most of Ixchiguan’s 23,000 residents live in two-room adobe houses with dirt or cement floors. Wealthier, more modern neighborhoods have cinder-block houses with metal roofs. Three in four Ixchiguans live in poverty.

Agriculture drives the economy. But because this is the coldest mountain region of Guatemala, farmers struggle to subsist on their potato and wheat crops.

Opium is the predominant cash crop in western Guatemala, which grows three quarters of the country’s poppy production, according to CIA reports. In 2004, those crops yielded an estimated 1.4 metric tons of pure heroin.

With the uncontrolled drug trade comes widespread political corruption and violent crime.

Ramires’ father is among the 1 in 3 heads of households who have left Ixchiguan in recent years. Many traded the chill of the mountains for winters in New England. A large community ended up in Delaware. Ramires’ father, who is disabled, lives in Boston.

The elder Ramires mailed what looked like his son’s Guatemalan birth certificate to the Butler County Jail.

It said he was 17, born in 1989.

Anderson was confident that Ramires was an adult when he offered a plea agreement.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten told Ramires at Monday’s hearing that if he admitted his age, he could get out of jail in a few days and be on his way back to Guatemala.

If Ramires didn’t plea, the judge explained, it would mean more jail time, or prison.

Ramires’ whispered in Spanish to the interpreter, who spoke to the judge.

“Don’t you want to see my birth certificate?” Ramires had asked.

Verifying records

Verifying age is not easy.

Anderson and ICE agents tell stories of making calls to the remote hometown s of detained immigrants, where the only phone in town, a pay phone, rings until someone wanders by and picks it up. If the U.S. official is lucky, that one phone sits near the church.

Poorer villages often don’t have official government records. But most citizens of Mexico and Central American nations are devout Catholics, and the local priest may have baptism records. The trouble is getting the priest to the pay phone.

In Ramires’ case, there were conflicting birth records.

Karl Timmons is a deportation officer for ICE.

He regularly visits the immigrants who end up in one of the area’s county jails. He checks to make sure they’re being treated well. He helps them contact relatives, if they need money or need to arrange for someone to meet them back home upon deportation.

Timmons took the stand Tuesday, after Marten called Ramires back to court.

After Ramires had claimed Monday to be 17, U.S. marshals frantically contacted the judge, Anderson, and Ramires’ lawyer, John Rapp.

If Ramires was a juvenile, the marshals said, they couldn’t leave him in the Butler County Jail.

Timmons told the judge that before the U.S. deports someone, officials have to verify where he or she belongs

ICE contacted the Consulate of Guatemala in Houston, which confirmed Ramires’ year of birth as 1987. Age 19.

The birth certificate sent by Ramires’ dad appeared to be a fake.

‘A bald-faced lie’

“I am finding Mr. Ramires is an adult,” Judge Marten said.

LuAnn Rivera translated the ruling into Spanish for Ramires, who sank into a chair that seemed to swallow him. His dark brown eyes gazed toward the judge.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” Marten said. “The only challenge to that is one of self-interest, and frankly not credible on the part of Mr. Ramires.”

Marten addressed Ramires’ claims the day before about his age after he had raised his right hand and sworn to tell the truth.

“There is no question in my mind you gave a bald-faced lie to me when you were under oath,” Marten said.

If a jury convicted Ramires for illegal re-entry, the judge said, he’d add a count of perjury, which would add years to a prison sentence.

“When you go back to jail, tell your friends who might be considering doing the same thing what is going to happen to them,” Marten said.

The judge set Ramires for a trial by jury Nov. 7.

What’s next?

On Thursday, President Bush signed a bill authorizing construction of 700 miles of fences along the U.S.-Mexico border. Earlier this month, he signed a spending bill that will increase the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents.

On Friday, Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon said the plan to erect a border fence to keep out illegal immigrants was “mistaken” and would complica te his visit to the White House on Nov. 9.

According to a CNN poll conducted last week, 74 percent of Americans want more U.S. agents along the border. Only 45 percent want a fence built.

And though 58 percent said they would support large fines to punish employers who hire illegal immigrants, 54 percent said they would oppose jail terms for employers.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents said the number of illegal immigrants in the United States should be decreased. But only 34 percent said all illegal immigrants should be removed.

Politics and polls aside, enforcement officers in Kansas are certain of a few facts:

Sometime in the next few days, a Wichita ICE agent will pick up the phone and learn of another vehicle stuffed with people on a Kansas highway.

Some may be children.

Others may be criminals.

Agents know estimates put the count of illegal immigrants living in the United States somewhere between 7 million and 20 million.

Only 15 or so will be intercepted in that next van.

Criminal immigration by the numbers

– 125: Federal criminal cases related to immigration filed in Kansas in 2005.

– 200: Federal criminal cases related to immigration estimated to be filed in Kansas this year.

– 50: Approximate percentage of cases in the Kansas office of U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren where the defendants are foreign nationals.

– 33.3: Approximate percentage of those cases with foreign nationals involving drugs.

– 66.7: Approximate percentage of those cases with foreign nationals charged with one of the following crimes: returning after being deported, including those who have been convicted of prior felonies; use of false documents or identity theft; transporting illegal immigrants.

– 18,783: Number of federal prisoners nationwide serving time for immigrat ion offenses (as of last month).

– 10.6: Percent of the federal inmate population serving time for federal immigration crimes.

– 32,347: Number of Mexican citizens in custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

– 261: Inmates in Kansas prisons who report foreign citizenship (as of last month).

– 175: Mexican citizens in Kansas prisons.

– 2.9: Percent of Kansas prison population who are not U.S. citizens.

– $23,429: Average cost per year for one federal inmate.

– $1,200: Estimated cost per month for an inmate in the Butler County Jail, where some federal immigration suspects are detained awaiting the outcome of their cases.

Quotable

“They come across the border and into the interior of the United States through organized crime networks. And once they get here, they have to break the law and commit identity theft to get the documents they need to work. The notion that there’s not criminal activity on every level of illegal immigrat ion is one of naivete.”

- Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson

“I’ve done a lot of these cases in the last few years, and I can tell you most people I see come from places where they live in $800 houses made of mud and straw. Drug king pins rule the town and the police are on their payroll. Crime is rampant. There, they work for $3 a day. They can make more here picking up shingles at a construction site here. Even being in jail in the U.S. beats where they were.”

- John Rapp, Wichita criminal defense attorney

“Here’s what’s going to happen: You are going to prison, then you’re going to be deported. If you come back, I’m going to send you to prison for more time on this case, without a trial, in addition to any time you may serve on the new case. You will never be able to re-enter the United States ever again under the current legal system. I don’t care what they tell you over at jail.”

- U.S. District Judge Monti Belot, Wichita, explaining to a defendant the procedure if he pleads guilty to transporting illegal aliens

About this story

Ron Sylvester, who covers legal affairs for The Eagle, gained access to federal officials on the front line of immigration enforcement in Kansas.

Source notes

– Department of Justice: Information about criminal prosecutions came from interviews with Brent Anderson, Kansas’ main prosecutor of immigration-related crimes, dating back to April, and from observing Anderson in court. U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren allowed Sylvester to conduct in-depth interviews with Anderson.

– Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Information about ICE procedures, investigations and reports of organized smuggling networks came from sitting in on meetings with Anderson and local agents, and from interviews with officials in Wichita and Dallas. Direct statements of individual agents were taken from their sworn testimony in public hearings and records contained in court files. Information attributed to “ICE agents” came from information offered by two or more agents in separate conversations. That information then was confirmed through an office supervisor or an agency spokesman.

– Marcos Ramires-Ramires: Information about Ramires came from a variety of sources, including public documents, testimony, and court exhibits filed in his federal criminal case. Personal information used in this story was confirmed by Ramires’ defense attorney, John Rapp. — Ixchiguan, Guatemala: Information about the drug trade, political corruption and crime in the area were taken from reports in the CIA Worldbook. Details on population, the economy, living conditions and migration patterns are from Servicio de Informacion Municipal, a Central American reporting group; information about residents’ safety and damage from Hurricane Stan in October 2005 were gleaned from reports by the U.S. State Department.

– Numbers: Statistical information was provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Kansas office of the U.S. attorney, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Butler County sheriff’s office.