“I am not remiss to say that from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, there is a blood trail to Marilyn Pharis’ bedroom,” Santa Maria, California police Chief Ralph Martin charged last week. On July 24, two burglars allegedly broke in to Pharis’ home as she slept. They sexually assaulted and beat her. Pharis, 64, a U.S. Air Force veteran, died in the hospital Aug. 1. It turns out that one of the two men charged for the crime, Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, 29, is an undocumented immigrant against whom Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a detainer in 2014. Ramirez has pleaded not guilty.
The case seems like Kate Steinle all over again. On July 1, Steinle was strolling on Pier 14 in San Francisco with her father, when a bullet pierced her heart. Authorities charged Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a seven-time convicted felon and undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times, with murder. He pleaded not guilty. If the San Francisco sheriff had honored an ICE detainer, Lopez-Sanchez would not have been in San Francisco on July 1.
I always thought there was a covenant with those who come to this country, legally or illegally. They’re supposed to be on their best behavior as a condition of staying. I thought President Barack Obama understood that when he promised to focus on deporting “felons, not families, criminals, not children, gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” But the administration has overly narrowed its view of criminal behavior, such that ICE targets only felons and undocumented immigrants convicted of three or more serious misdemeanors.
To me, racking up misdemeanors should make an immigrant who is here illegally a suitable subject for deportation — but the law has evolved.
Santa Barbara, California, law enforcement first booked Ramirez in 2009 for driving without a license. In May 2014, authorities booked Ramirez on felony sexual assault and drug possession. The charge was changed to misdemeanor battery. It was not reduced, Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley told me. “The standard for arrest is probable cause.” Last month, authorities charged Ramirez with felony possession of a concealed dirk or dagger and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. On July 20, he pleaded “no contest” to a misdemeanor knife charge; he was supposed to start serving a 30-day sentence in October.
For his part, the Santa Maria police chief is steamed because he has watched state and federal law work together to undermine law enforcement. The voter-approved Proposition 47 downgraded classification for drug possession, shoplifting, and theft from felonies to misdemeanors. And a 2013 California law, the TRUST Act, prevents local law enforcement from honoring ICE detainers absent a serious or violent felony conviction. (Ramirez has no prior felony convictions.) “We’re a sanctuary state,” explained Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.
There is a cascade effect: Washington relaxes standards for deportations, and Sacramento cranks out bills and ballot measures to reduce the number of crimes classified as felonies. Deportation is not the law enforcement tool it once was. When there are laws against laws, the immigration and criminal justice systems are destined to fail.
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