New Brunswick case exposes glaring flaws in federal effort to deport illegal immigrants
Brian Donohue, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Mar. 23
By the end of last summer, the wanted posters bearing police sketches of a serial rapist terrorizing the New Brunswick neighborhood were everywhere.
The image of the suspect’s face had been plastered in storefronts, stuffed in mailboxes and seared on the minds of women who had grown too fearful to walk home alone.
But when Ricardo Cepates was arrested in December and linked by DNA to six of the attacks, the sketches weren’t the only thing that made his face a familiar one to New Brunswick police.
Cepates had been in the hands of police before.
In September, 1998, the 33-year-old Honduran national had been arrested in New Brunswick for grabbing a woman on the street and holding a knife to her throat.
Despite a previous deportation order, his continued status as an illegal immigrant and a judge’s specific instructions that he be forced to report to federal immigration authorities, Cepates was never detained by federal immigration authorities or deported.
Instead, he pleaded guilty in 1999 to weapons charges and was released on probation, setting the stage for a series of rapes prosecutors said began two years later and kept the city on edge for more than two years.
Cepates’ case is the latest in a string of high-profile incidents highlighting what has long been described as a dysfunctional relationship between local police departments and federal immigration agencies. The whereabouts of about 80,000 people who have been convicted of a crime and ordered deported are unknown to authorities, according to federal statistics.
It is a problem the Bush administration and congressional Republicans are hoping to solve, in part by giving local police departments more power to enforce federal immigration laws.
That job is now done almost solely by 2,000 federal investigators, who all sides agree are often stretched too thin to respond when police arrest a suspected illegal alien for committing a crime.
If such changes had been in effect when Cepates was arrested in 1998, supporters said, New Brunswick police could have simply charged him with immigration violations, detained him and begun the process of deportation themselves.
It is a sea change in immigration policy that many critics, including immigrant advocates and many police chiefs in New Jersey, fear could backfire.
While most police chiefs said they welcome more power to ensure criminals are deported, there is a growing unease that the federal government is trying to force them into the role of immigration cops.
Such a change, they said, would sap manpower and erode a crucial trust with immigrant communities. If the person answering 911 has the power to deport them, they fear, tipsters and victims would stop reporting crimes.
“They’re going to be stabbed, killed, murdered, robbed and not want to report it,” said Capt. Peter Ugalde of the Dover Police Department in Morris County.
There are no records showing whether immigration authorities were notified when Cepates was arrested in September, 1998.
By that time, the 33-year-old Honduran national had already been sent back to Mexico after he was caught trying to enter the U.S. through the Mexico-Texas border in 1991, according to a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He was later picked up in California and released by a judge pending his court case. He never showed up and was ordered deported in absentia in 1993.
Accounts differ on whether prosecutors, police or probation officers failed to notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the federal agency failed to respond when informed Cepates was in custody following his 1998 arrest.
“Why a flag didn’t go up in 1998 when he had two prior arrests and shouldn’t have been in the country, I don’t know” said New Brunswick Police Director Joe Catanese. “I don’t know how that all happens. You talk about cracks. There’s more cracks that this guy fell through,” Catanese said.
Since Cepates’ arrest, Catanese said, he has questioned the officer who arrested him in 1998 and he does not recall if he contacted the INS. But he said it is the department’s policy to always notify immigration agencies when a criminal suspect is believed to be an illegal immigrant.
Catanese, like many other New Jersey police officials, described a situation in which police officers often see little point in notifying federal agents when they arrest a suspected illegal immigrant.
Usually, police said, immigration agents tell arresting officers they lack the manpower to process the case and instruct police to simply release the suspects.
“Their past experience is that it’s useless,” said Mike Cutler, a retired special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Most often, almost always, they don’t respond. They say, ‘Let’ em go.’ And that is why we are seeing the horror stories about repeat offenders in jurisdictions all over the country.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the federal government has made strides in improving cooperation since the INS was dissolved and absorbed by the DHS in March 2003.
Police departments have a new 24-hour information center to get quick information on a suspect’s immigration status. Agents are entering the names of criminal aliens into a national database of wanted persons.
Teams of federal investigators have been specially assigned to track down more than 300,000 people who have been ordered deported but have not left the country.
“This is one of the vulnerabilities in a system that the INS wasn’t really addressing,” said Garrison Courtney, the ICE spokesman. “The INS was a fractured agency, it was not an enforcement agency. We brought in customs, and the air marshalls. We are an enforcement agency.”
At the same time, the federal government is pushing local departments to do more of the job themselves.
A Republican sponsored bill known as the CLEAR Act, (Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal act) would give local officers the power to arrest and detain suspects solely on suspicion of violating immigration laws, even if they have not committed a crime.
Duke Hipp, a spokesman for the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia), said the bill is aimed primarily at enabling police to remove aliens who have committed crimes, not to conduct sweeps of people who are merely in the country illegally.
He disputed arguments that such a tool could be abused by police seeking to conduct sweeps of illegal immigrants.
“It’s just logical,” Hipp said. “These are the men and women who are on the beat every day. You have to give them a little leeway and little credit that they will do the right thing.”
While it exposed gaps in the system, police said the New Brunswick serial rapist case also illustrates the kind of trust that turning beat cops into immigration cops could endanger.
In this case, several immigrant women were among the victims who came to police and provided the descriptions for police to use in their manhunts.
And when Cepates allegedly attacked a woman inside a French Street music store on Dec. 6, it was several Mexican immigrants who chased Cepates through a blinding snowstorm, beat him up and held him down until police arrived.
All of those who helped knew police wouldn’t ask them their immigration status, Catanese said.
“I don’t want people to think they have to shy away from the police because at any given moment we can ask them for proof of their residency,” Catanese said. “In the Cepates case, we had the cooperation from the community and we made an effort to get out there and reach out to the community. When we caught him it was because someone stepped up to the plate.”
Brian Donohue covers immigration issues. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973)392-1543.