- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2016

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — There was a time when Scott Root and Michelle Wilson-Root looked forward to Christmas, but not this year.

Their 21-year-old daughter, Sarah Root, was killed Jan. 31 by Eswin Mejia, an illegal immigrant from Honduras accused of plowing into the back of her vehicle as he street-raced while drunk in Omaha, Nebraska. He skipped bail. Nearly a year later, he remains a fugitive.

For the Roots, this is the first Christmas without her, their first since the tragedy put them on a path with President-elect Donald Trump, who brought national attention to the case as part of his call during the election campaign for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

The Roots and their 25-year-old son, Scott Jr., met with and campaigned for Mr. Trump in Iowa. His Nov. 8 victory was their victory, too. That doesn’t make Christmas any easier.

“It’s going to suck,” said Mr. Root, his blank face a contrast to the cheerful green and red decorations at the local Starbucks. “Just like Thanksgiving sucked. Empty.”

It’s not hard to see why Sarah Root’s death resonated with Mr. Trump. The day before she was killed, Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Bellevue University, where she carried a 4.0 GPA while working full time at Walgreens.

The 19-year-old driver, also known as Edwin Mejia, had a blood alcohol content of 0.241, three times the legal limit, when his truck rear-ended her Oldsmobile Bravada SUV. Despite Mejia’s history of missing court dates, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement refused to put a hold on him.

Charged with vehicular homicide, Mejia posted the required $5,000 of the $50,000 bond set by a Nebraska judge and fled. He has been added to ICE’s most-wanted list, although there is no word on his whereabouts.

The case soon came to symbolize a perfect storm of judicial and bureaucratic indifference. Even ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale acknowledged in a letter to Iowa and Nebraska Senate Republicans that “Edwin Mejia should be in custody.”

“The killer of our child is gone,” said Mr. Root. “The judge has no accountability. The federal government, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he wasn’t an enforcement priority. Now he’s on the top 10 of the ICE list, so he is a priority, but there’s no federal money to catch him. Zero.”

From a political standpoint, the Roots were in the right place at the right time — Iowa, in the middle of a Republican presidential primary.

They connected with Mr. Trump in February and threw their support behind him as he bashed the Obama administration for allowing Mejia to slip through the cracks, first after he entered country as an unaccompanied minor in 2013 and then for refusing to detain him.

“I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family. But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Mr. Trump said in his July 21 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

The facts of the Root case were never in dispute even as Democrats and others challenged some of Mr. Trump’s statements against illegal immigration.

For example, PolitiFact rated as “half true” his Oct. 27 declaration: “Thousands of Americans have been killed by illegal aliens.”

“In reality, there is no solid data for homicides committed by people here illegally,” PolitiFact said in a Nov. 3 analysis. “His implicit suggestion is that people should fear illegal immigrants more than citizens, and we don’t see evidence for that.”

From Democrats to Republicans

Deciding to back Mr. Trump wasn’t automatic for the Roots. They are pro-union Democrats who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Before her daughter was killed, Michelle Wilson-Root said she planned to sit out the election.

“I wasn’t voting. I told my kids a week before Sarah passed, ‘I don’t care for any of them, and I’m not going to vote this year,’” she said. “I said, ‘Even though I like what Mr. Trump is saying, he needs to soften it up a little bit.’ And I’ve never been a Hillary supporter.”

She changed her mind after meeting Mr. Trump in May. “He’s an amazing man. I wish everybody could see it,” she said.

As she told him about Sarah, he teared up.

“I judged him from what I had seen on TV, but without getting to know him. And getting to know him, I found out he’s no different than we are,” said Ms. Wilson-Root. “He has a heart of gold. He does so many things to help people behind the scenes, and he never wants the recognition for it.”

The Roots‘ son, Scott, talked to them about switching parties after taking a Western civilization course at Bellevue, called the Kirkpatrick Signature Series, required for graduation.

“He told me, ‘Mom, all your beliefs are Republican beliefs, not Democratic beliefs,’” she said.

Doing their part to elect Mr. Trump was only the beginning for the Roots. They have made it their mission to keep Sarah’s case before law enforcement authorities and to fight for the rights of those who have lost loved ones to people living in the country illegally.

They are frustrated by the trend toward describing undocumented aliens as “immigrants” without the “illegal” modifier.

“The Democrats like to twist those words, and so does the media, and say ‘immigrants.’ That’s not what we’re talking about,” said Ms. Wilson-Root. “We’re talking about illegal immigrants.”

They keep in regular contact with Senate and House members in Iowa and Nebraska, who have championed their cause. The family has built a $10,000 reward for information on the case by holding fundraisers such as the Sarah Root Bounty Run in August.

The Roots campaigned against Douglas County Judge Jeffrey Marcuzzo, who set the $50,000 bond and was up for a retention vote in November. He was retained, but with less than 58 percent of the vote, the lowest of the 55 judges on the Nebraska ballot.

In April, Mr. Root testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a hearing titled “Criminal Aliens Released by the Department of Homeland Security.”

The Roots later joined four Republican senators — Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — to introduce Sarah’s Law, a bill that would place a mandatory hold on any undocumented alien who commits motor vehicle homicide or serious injury.

The bill, which the senators plan to reintroduce next year, also would require ICE to inform victims’ families about the custody status of suspects.

Under President Obama’s 2014 executive orders on immigration, which were aimed at shifting the focus to deporting dangerous criminals, the number of detainers, arrests and removals have been down about 40 percent, the House committee reported.

Since Sarah’s death, the Roots have been in contact with other members of the club nobody wants to join, such as Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son Brandon was killed in a 2014 car collision with an intoxicated illegal immigrant.

“We’ve told everybody, ‘Our daughter wasn’t the first one this has happened to.’ Why hasn’t something been done in all the years that people have been speaking out against it?” said Ms. Wilson-Root. “It’s because we didn’t have anyone ballsy enough to be our voice, to stand up and say, ‘No, we’re not doing this anymore.’ And fortunately, now we do with Mr. Trump.”

As much as the Roots want Mejia brought to justice, they don’t necessarily see that as Mr. Trump’s responsibility.

“I don’t think the administration’s job is to get him caught. I think their job is to make sure it doesn’t happen to another family,” said Sarah’s brother, Scott. “I don’t have a doubt in my mind that he’ll be caught and that time will come when it’s supposed to. For the new administration, just put the pieces in place. Make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else.”

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