Even being convicted of homicide isn’t enough to ensure illegal immigrants are detained by federal agents, the government’s top deportation official said in a letter to Congress released Monday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana said neither Obama administration policy nor federal law required her agency to detain Edwin Mejia, who arrived in the U.S. illegally as part of the surge of unaccompanied children from Central America, after he was charged with vehicular homicide in Nebraska.
Still, she said her officers should have taken the initiative to detain him of their own volition and that she has notified all of her bureaus nationwide to do a better job of evaluating people they’re called to detain.
Mr. Mejia stands accused of a drunken-driving accident this year that killed a young Iowa woman in Omaha — but federal immigration agents never showed up to collect him. After he posted bond with local authorities, he absconded.
“After further review, we believe that further enforcement action would have served an important federal interest in this case,” Ms. Saldana said in a letter to Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, which the senator released Monday.
ICE said it first encountered Mr. Mejia, who also goes by the first name Eswin, at the border in Arizona in May 2013. He was a 16-year-old at the time. The Border Patrol, acting under President Obama’s interpretation of the law, admitted Mr. Mejia and turned him over to social services, then eventually sent him to live with his brother in the U.S.
Ms. Saldana did not say whether the brother was in the U.S. legally.
In January, police say, Mr. Mejia was street racing while drunk when he struck the vehicle driven by Sarah Root, 21. She died as a result of her injuries.
Mr. Mejia posted bond on the homicide charge, and ICE officers did not come pick him up for detention, allowing him to disappear into the shadows.
Now ICE is scrambling to try to find him. Ms. Saldana said her agency has asked Honduran officials to see if he shows up back there.
Mr. Sasse was not satisfied. He called Ms. Saldana’s response “an embarrassment” to her agency and elevated the issue to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, demanding to know who specifically was responsible for deciding not to send officers to pick up Mr. Mejia.
“Why did ICE decline to detain Mr. Mejia, despite several requests to do so by the Douglas County Police Department? Were each of these requests denied on a case-by-case basis?” Mr. Sasse said in his letter to Mr. Johnson.
Ms. Saldana, in her letter to Mr. Sasse, said being charged with vehicular homicide wasn’t enough to make Mr. Mejia a priority under standards set by Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson in 2014.
In fact, even if he were convicted of the charge, ICE still wouldn’t have to hold him, Ms. Saldana said.
“Even if he were convicted of the offense, motor vehicle homicide — driving under the influence, the conviction would not constitute a crime of violence under the immigration laws, and consequently, would not constitute an aggravated felony,” she wrote. “The conviction would not render him subject to mandatory detention, nor would it significantly impact his eligibility to apply for relief or protection from removal.”
At a Senate hearing last month, Ms. Saldana had said her officers didn’t come to collect Mr. Mejia because Ms. Root was still alive, so the case didn’t rise to their priorities. Her letter Monday, however, says that even though she later died, her agents wouldn’t have necessarily considered Mr. Mejia a priority.
Under pressure from activists who said the number of deportations was too high, Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson in 2014 announced a policy of deporting only those with the most serious criminal records.
Those policies mean that more than 9 million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. have little fear of being kicked out.
Mr. Mejia, however, was already facing deportation under his unaccompanied minor case, though that proceeding has dragged on. His court appearance was slated for later this month — nearly three years after he first entered the U.S.