- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

DENVER | An illegal immigrant charged with causing a two-car crash that left three people dead last week, including a three-year-old getting ice cream with his mother, had been arrested repeatedly, but never deported - and now Colorado lawmakers are scrambling for cover and passing blame.

Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, said the Bush administration has understaffed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leaving it unable to respond when local authorities tried to have the man deported earlier this year.

But federal authorities say they have no record of the report, and Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, says the “blood from this incident” is on the hands of Denver officials for protecting the suspect’s identity.

The tragedy could serve to push immigration and so-called “sanctuary city” policies back to the fore in an election-battleground state, despite the efforts of both major presidential campaigns to take the issue off the table.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and at the same time, something we should be outraged by,” said Mr. Ritter on KOA-AM’s “The Mike Rosen Show.”

Francis Hernandez, 23, was being held Wednesday on $250,000 bail after being charged with vehicular manslaughter. He’s accused of running a red light in a sport utility vehicle and broadsiding a truck Sept. 4, hurling the truck and the SUV into an ice cream shop, killing three people, including a three-year-old boy, Marten Kudlis, who was getting an ice cream cone with his mother.

The two women in the truck, best friends Debbie Serecky, 51, and Patricia Guntharp, 49, also died at the scene.

Mr. Ritter said the blame for Mr. Hernandez still being in the country lies with the Bush administration, which he said “did not get anything done at the federal level” even after identifying illegal immigration as a top domestic priority.

“The frustration here is that states and localities can’t deport anyone,” said Mr. Ritter. “I don’t think ICE agents are sitting around twiddling their thumbs. I think they’re terribly understaffed.”

A 2006 Colorado law requires state and local police to notify federal immigration authorities after arresting suspected illegal immigrants for crimes other than minor traffic offenses. And local authorities said they did just that.

But ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency had no record of being contacted about Mr. Hernandez.

“ICE believes Hernandez was convincingly masquerading as a U.S. citizen for years. In such cases, officers may not have suspected him as being anything other than a U.S. citizen,” said Mr. Rusnok, adding that the department does “as much as our time and resources permit.”

Aurora police spokesman Bob Friel said the department had arrested Mr. Hernandez as recently as April 25 on a fugitive warrant for speeding, failure to signal, having no insurance and making a false statement to police. Mr. Hernandez was sent to the Arapahoe County jail, where county officials referred him to ICE, he said.

Mr. Friel said Aurora police made more than 2,500 referrals to ICE last year, but that only a small fraction of those were actually investigated.

“We’re clearly trying to abide by the law, which requires us to refer suspects to ICE. We did that 2,500 times last year. We want to be a good partner with ICE. But we’re not getting that support,” said Mr. Friel.

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