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Deaths fan immigration debate

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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.

Meanwhile, the political finger-pointing intensified as Republicans accused Mr. Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, of condoning lax policies on illegal immigration, making Denver a sanctuary city known for protecting illegals.

Mr. Tancredo, a former presidential candidate who has championed clamping down on illegal immigration, named Mr. Hickenlooper, saying "blood from this incident is on his hands."

"How many more people have to die before Governor Ritter and his open-borders allies get the picture?" Mr. Tancredo said. "There are a number of steps the governor could have taken and now should take if he wants to convince us he has indeed seen the light. I will once again provide him with a road map to a successful policy dealing with criminal aliens."

Mr. Hickenlooper countered that Denver routinely refers more than 2,000 arrestees to federal immigration officials. "No matter how many times Congressman Tancredo says it, Denver is not a sanctuary city," said Mr. Hickenlooper.

Federal law requires cooperation with immigration authorities, but many localities have passed their own laws or policies preventing police or other officials from reporting illegal immigrants. Some cities argue illegal immigrants who are victims of crimes are more likely to come forward and report those crimes under sanctuary policies.

Sanctuary cities are just one part of a broad immigration debate that roiled the Republican presidential primary early this year, but immigration all but disappeared as an issue after Sen. John McCain emerged from that contest.

Both he and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama agree on the general outlines of legalizing illegal immigrants and revamping the legal immigration system, though Mr. McCain says borders must be secured first, while Mr. Obama says all parts must be done at the same time.

Whether Denver is actually a sanctuary city has been debated for years. In his interview with the governor, host Mike Rosen said that, on a scale of one to 10, with San Francisco being a 10 as sanctuary cities go, Denver was "about a seven."

Colorado House Minority Leader Mike May blamed Mr. Ritter, pointing to his record as Denver district attorney, when he was accused of cutting deals with illegal immigrants to have charges against them reduced.

"This recent tragedy now appears to be the direct result of such policies, and I find it reprehensible," said Mr. May.

The governor blasted Republicans for what he called "political pandering," adding that "this is not the time or place."

Former Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat and an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, said too many public officials "wink" at the issue.

"It's often said our immigration system is broken, but now our law-enforcement system seems to be broken, too," said Mr. Lamm.

On Thursday, congressional Republicans plan to try to drive the issue back to the national stage with a forum, held on the House side, featuring families who lost relatives to crimes or traffic collisions committed by illegal immigrants.

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