March 31, 2017
By Mark Bowes
When Salvador Vitervo-Ortiz was sentenced recently to five years for the mob beating and stabbing of a Chesterfield County man, prosecutor Juan Vega said there should be little debate about whether the illegal immigrant from Mexico is a danger to the community and should be deported for his crimes.
The case illustrates what Vega said has become relatively commonplace in the locality with the Richmond area’s largest number of Latino residents: the arrest, detention and prosecution of illegal immigrants for violent crimes and other serious offenses.
The Chesterfield Jail ranks third in Virginia in the number of illegal immigrants detained on criminal charges or convictions. The facility reported housing 2,012 illegals, including 649 who were set to be deported, in the eight years since a 2008 law took effect that mandates the identification of illegal immigrants being housed in state jails.
But jail officials said that figure assuredly is much higher, because they do not include hundreds of other inmates whose immigration or citizenship status could not be definitively established. The number of those being held for violent offenses could not be determined.
Vega, a naturalized citizen who legally immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua with his family as a young boy, said he sees firsthand a problem that many national politicians, big city mayors and other civic leaders don’t see or willfully ignore — even as some defy federal immigration authorities, push for open borders and defend so-called “sanctuary cities” with large illegal immigrant constituencies, including criminals and gang members.
“Many politicians and other people in the community throughout the nation are really going out on a limb for these violent individuals, to keep them here, and I thought, this is kind of disturbing from where I’m coming from, with what I see here in the courtroom every week,” said Vega, the only prosecutor in the Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office who speaks Spanish fluently and routinely talks with non-English-speaking victims of crime.
Local attorney Paul Fantl, who like Vega is a naturalized citizen who legally immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina as a young boy, agrees that violent illegal immigrants should be removed. But he differs from Vega in that he believes too much emphasis is being placed on the criminal element in immigrant communities to the detriment of those who live and work here peacefully.
“When one focuses only on the crimes they commit, in doing so, you’re displacing all of the good that they do,” said Fantl, whose clients are overwhelmingly illegal immigrants. “We shouldn’t vilify all of them by emphasizing criminal illegal aliens.”
Vega said his focus is on the violent immigrants who are here illegally, and as a Latino, he feels a certain responsibility to speak out about the problem. “Because if it was somebody else, a non-Latino, a lot of times they’re labeled racist,” he said.
“People don’t know that there are some pretty violent illegal immigrants in Chesterfield that we’re putting away,” Vega added. “And I coordinate with ICE to make sure these folks are picked up and deported. And sometimes ICE tells me — yeah — we’ve already deported them twice.”
What many seem to overlook, Vega said, is that when immigrants with a propensity for violence or criminality enter the country illegally, “they go to these Latino communities where there are a lot of legal Latinos, who they prey upon.”
It’s confounding, Vega added, that “not everybody is on board with deporting these violent criminals.”
While Fantl said he “welcomes” the deportation of violent offenders and believes U.S. borders should be secured, he subscribes strongly to the belief held by many pro-immigration advocates that “crime within the undocumented population is markedly lower as a percentage (than) within the U.S. citizen population.”
Fantl said his belief is largely based on his personal experience and anecdotal evidence, although he said “many astute commonwealth’s attorneys” are in agreement.
But there are no hard data to support it, and critics question whether that makes any difference — since immigrants committing offenses in the U.S. are adding to the nation’s overall crime burden and victimizing citizens.
“Yes, within the community there are criminals — rapists, pedophiles, murderers — any kind of crime you’re going to find in any other (non-immigrant) community,” Fantl said. “But most of the undocumented people here are very, very demur, very afraid, hard-working, non-complaining, and they don’t ask for anything. They just want to work, save money and send it back. That’s been my experience, over and over and over.”
Fantl says politicians and certain segments of the news media engage in “fearmongering” in an effort to gain votes or attract viewers to boost ratings.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a self-described independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit research center that examines immigration issues, found the question of immigrant crime to be conflicted in a 2009 study it conducted that examined academic and government research on the topic.
Researchers said new government data indicate that immigrants have high rates of criminality, while older academic research found low rates.
“The overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information,” the report’s authors said. “However, the newer government data indicate that there are legitimate public safety reasons for law enforcement to work with federal immigration authorities.”
Chesterfield attorney Charles Phelps, who speaks Spanish and whose clientele include legal and illegal immigrants, said it’s difficult to say from his perspective whether serious crime committed by illegal residents is on the rise. It may seem more prevalent because it’s become a hot-button issue and the immigration status of offenders is more widely reported than in the past, he said.
However, “I think there’s a lot more gang activity here among Latinos than is really being reported,” said Phelps, who represented one of two Guatemalan natives who pleaded guilty last year to killing a Chesterfield used car dealer in a murder-for-hire plot.
“I think the police are aware of it but (not) the general public. And certainly you get a lot more violent crime with them. And there’s a lot of drug trafficking by illegals, and that also leads to some of the violent crime that I think the general public probably doesn’t realize.”
Although no record is kept of the number of illegal immigrants arrested on criminal charges, perhaps the best available gauge can be found in data collected by the State Compensation Board of Virginia, which collects inmate immigration queries that all local and state regional jails are required by law to submit to the state.
That data show that the Chesterfield Jail consistently has ranked third in Virginia in the number of illegal immigrants detained on criminal charges or convictions. The facility in 2016 held at least 248 inmates identified as illegal, non-citizens, including 105 who were set for deportation, according to the compensation board.
In 2012, Chesterfield reported holding 328 illegal immigrants, including 56 set for deportation — the largest number for the jail since the 2008 law was passed mandating the identification of illegal immigrants in Virginia jails.
U.S. immigration agents in 2016 picked up 28 illegal immigrants from the Chesterfield Jail after they served their time for various offenses, and another 32 inmates for whom ICE had placed a detainer were transferred to other jails, according to the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office.
Chesterfield had an estimated 27,399 Latino residents, both legal and illegal, in 2015, or 8.2 percent of the county’s population of 333,687, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But demographers say the number is likely much higher because illegal immigrants don’t usually participate in census surveys.
Some of the more publicized criminal cases involving illegal immigrants that Chesterfield has prosecuted in recent years include:
The January 2009 conviction of Alberto Candino Bamaca, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, who killed a woman in a drunken-driving crash that left the victim pinned against the side of a convenience store.
The November 2011 conviction of Melecio C. Hernandez, an illegal Mexican immigrant, who sexually assaulted a female neighbor after crawling through a window of her Chester home.
The August 2012 conviction of Felix Carrillo-Fuentes, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, who cut his pregnant fiancee and fatally stabbed 16 times a man he considered to be a romantic rival.
The May 2015 conviction of Carlos Perez-Reyes, an illegal Mexican immigrant, who struck and fatally injured a bicyclist he left for dead in a hit-and-run crash on Midlothian Turnpike. Perez-Reyes had lived in the U.S. for many years despite a 2003 conviction for grand theft in Henrico County and three other convictions for driving without a license.
The May 2015 conviction of Erick A. Munoz, an illegal Mexican immigrant attending James River High School, who caused the death of a fellow student in a drunken-driving crash.
The May 2016 conviction of Tomas Gomez Manuel, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, who sexually assaulted a co-worker in the parking lot of the Maruchan Virginia Inc. noodle plant. Manuel had been deported in 2011 but then returned to the U.S. illegally.
The September 2016 convictions of Melvin Leonel Sandoval Vasquez and Narcisco DeJesus Lemus Mendoza, both Guatemalan nationals, who strangled and suffocated the owner of used car dealership in a murder-for-hire plot that netted them about $3,000 each.
The February 2017 conviction of Daniel Soriano Avila, an illegal Mexican immigrant, who sexually molested two girls, ages 9 and 11, after the family of the victims had taken him into their home to live. Avila had left the U.S. after police obtained warrants for his arrest in 2008 but he then returned two years later after paying $8,000 to be smuggled back across the border.
Vega said he has prosecuted nine illegal immigrants for violent crimes and perhaps another 10 for non-violent felonies since he joined the prosecutor’s office in August 2012.
One of the more egregious cases involved the Oct. 4, 2015, mob-like attack on Salvador Garcia-Cruz, a legal immigrant, who was viciously punched and kicked and also stabbed above one of his eyes with a box cutter outside the El Tropicabana restaurant and nightclub on Jefferson Davis Highway.
The unprovoked assault was set into motion after of one of the suspects, while intoxicated, mistakenly got into the victim’s van and dragged his wife out by her neck. The couple just had arrived to pick up a friend.
A Chesterfield jury convicted the ringleader, Vitervo-Ortiz, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who was the first man to attack Garcia-Cruz as eight to 10 other men encircled the victim and beat him, Vega said.
The assault had devastating effects on Garcia-Cruz’s family. His wife suffered an emotional breakdown that required treatment for the better part of a year, and the stress caused the couple to divorce, with their son dropping out of high school to help support the family, Vega said.
Vega also prosecuted two Guatemalan immigrant brothers, Henry Manolo Mejia-Bobadillo and Osben Noel Mejia-Bobadillo, who in a coordinated attack punched and beat a man with a lead pipe after a wedding reception on Sept. 27, 2014. The defendants broke the victim’s nose and wrist, the latter of which required surgery and the insertion of pins.
And in another recent case, Vega prosecuted Jorge Leonado Borja Mendez, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant, who was charged with attacking a man and a pregnant woman with a broken beer bottle, cutting both on New Year’s Day 2016.
An MS-13 gang member from Mexico who gave police a fictitious name in a traffic stop, and an accused drug trafficker from Mexico charged with transporting 2.5 ounces of packaged cocaine in his car, are among some of the other serious cases Vega has handled in the courtroom.
Vega also has prosecuted another 20 to 30 cases involving illegal immigrants for driving while intoxicated, and some of those involved injuries and property damage. One of those defendants, Juan Guadalupe Martinez-Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant, pleaded guilty to his third drunken driving offense in 10 years, a felony.
“Every single victim of mine — whether they’re here illegally, or are citizens or have work permits — has said it’s a good idea to deport other violent illegal immigrants,” Vega said. “They’re scared there’s going to be some kind of retribution (after the felons) serve their time and leave prison.”
To help alleviate their fear, Vega ensures the victims that he has contacted immigration authorities to have the perpetrators deported.
“And the victims say, well, they always come back,” Vega said. “But at least they can take a little bit of solace knowing that we’re making the effort to kick them out of the country.”
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch