- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2010

After a Catholic nun’s death earlier this month in a drunken-driving crash that police say was caused by a repeat-offender illegal immigrant, a key lawmaker wants the federal government to start detaining and deporting every illegal immigrant who commits a drunken-driving offense.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter last week asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to update the rules that allowed Carlos Montano, an illegal immigrant, to be free the morning that police say he crashed into a car carrying three nuns, killing one of them, Sister Denise Mosier.

Current law doesn’t require DUI suspects to be detained, thanks to a 2004 Supreme Court interpretation, but Mr. Smith said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can detain illegal immigrants in such cases anyway, and he wants that to become the policy.

“Doing so will prevent these aliens from again getting behind the wheel of a car and killing or maiming innocent Americans,” he said in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “Sadly, such a new policy would come too late for Sister Mosier. However, many other lives can be saved.”

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for Ms. Napolitano, said Homeland Security would not respond to Mr. Smith through the press, though he said the department is conducting a review into why Mr. Montano was not detained in 2008.

On Friday, Ms. Napolitano told reporters that the review was being tracked out of Homeland Security headquarters. She said the department would like to make the review’s results public as long as it doesn’t compromise an ongoing investigation.

“I think we want to know the same thing that the public wants to know: Why was this individual with two DUIs in his past out on the road? And we want to make sure that the directives that we have issued since this individual entered the immigration system - that the directives would make sure that somebody like this would not be released onto the road,” she said.

Sister Mosier’s death in the Aug. 1 crash in Prince William County, Va., was the latest flash point in an increasingly heated immigration debate.

County police had twice before arrested Mr. Montano on drunken-driving charges, and in 2008 had turned him over to ICE. The federal agency processed him and began deportation proceedings, but released Mr. Montano on his own recognizance, which is why he was not in custody at the time of the crash.

It is unclear how many people would fall under Mr. Smith’s proposed new rules. ICE officials said they don’t keep statistics on how many illegal immigrants facing deportation proceedings have been convicted of drunken-driving offenses.

Mr. Smith said a 1996 law he helped pass requires immigration authorities to detain illegal immigrants who commit aggravated felonies, but a 2004 Supreme Court case ruled that a drunken-driving conviction didn’t meet that standard.

The connection between illegal immigration and crime has been hotly debated this year, and has been one of the driving forces behind Arizona’s enactment of a law cracking down on illegal immigrants.

It’s also driving other states to step up their efforts. Last week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell requested permission for state police troopers to begin enforcing immigration laws as part of the 287(g) program, named after the section of law that establishes federal-local police partnerships.

Another debate is whether illegal immigrants are more prone to commit crimes than U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.

But one trend is clear: Under Mr. Obama, ICE agents, who are responsible for immigration enforcement in the country’s interior, have begun focusing their efforts on deporting illegal immigrants with serious crime records.

Thanks to that change, criminal deportations are at an all-time high, but that has meant a drop in deportations of noncriminal immigrants.

The nuns’ religious order, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia, has publicly said it forgives Mr. Montano and that Sister Mosier would have done the same. The order also said the focus should be on Mr. Montano’s alcohol use, not on his status as an illegal immigrant.

“We all know that her inclusive spirit would not want her death to be a rallying point against undocumented persons as it has been this week,” Sister Cecilia Dwyer said in a funeral reflection posted on the order’s website.

That’s not how Ray Tranchant sees it. His 16-year-old daughter was killed in 2007 in an alcohol-fueled accident that police said was caused by an illegal immigrant who had previously been arrested for drunken driving. Mr. Tranchant said Mr. Montano’s legal status does matter.

“I’ve heard the argument time and time again this had everything to do with alcoholism. Well, of course it did. But for example, in Mexico City, how many people are killed every day [from drunken driving], but do we care? We don’t care because it’s not our problem. But when an illegal comes here and does it, it is different,” he said. “It’s not an alcoholism case; it’s a person who should not be at that point and time because the government didn’t do its job.”

He said the government does a good job of enforcing laws at airports and official points of entry but is not prepared to catch those who slip into the country by other means. He said the need for extra manpower is why local police should help enforce immigration laws.

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