Prepared Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
Remembering Sarah Root: Obama Immigration Priorities Present Moral Hazard
March 14, 2016
Today, I want to pay tribute to Sarah Root, a young woman from Iowa who had a bright future, but was taken from this earth too soon.
Sarah was 21 years old, and just graduated from Bellevue University with perfect grades. In the words of her family, “she was full of life and ready to take on the world.” According to a close friend of hers, Sarah was smart, outgoing, and dedicated to her friends and family. She embodied the words tattooed on her skin: Live, Laugh, Love.
The day Sarah graduated, she was struck by a drunk driver. That driver was in the country illegally. The alleged drunk driver was Edwin Mejia, and he had a blood-alcohol content of .241, three times the legal limit.
The driver was charged with felony motor vehicle homicide and operating a vehicle while intoxicated on February 3. Bail was set at $50,000, but he was only required to put up 10 percent. So, for a mere $5,000, the drunk driver walked out of jail and into the shadows. As Sarah’s father said after laying his daughter to rest, “the cost of a bond cost less than a funeral.”
Those are painful words to hear, but what’s more frustrating is that the driver should have never been released. When local law enforcement apparently asked the federal government – specifically U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to take custody of the person, the federal government declined. ICE refused to place a detainer on the driver. An ICE spokesman stated that the agency did not lodge a detainer on the man because his arrest for felony motor vehicle homicide “did not meet ICE’s enforcement priorities.”
Now, the Root family must face the consequences of the federal government’s inaction while grappling with their daughter’s death. It is difficult for the family to have closure since the man is nowhere to be found. It’s unknown if he’s still in the United States or if he has fled to his home country of Honduras.
But, this is not an isolated incident. It’s business as usual in the Obama Administration.
Because of the Administration’s policies and carelessness, Sarah Root became another victim. This case shows, once again, that there is a colossal and systematic breakdown of immigration enforcement, thanks to the Obama Administration’s flawed policies and lack of commitment to the rule of law.
Unfortunately, a talented young lady whose life was cut short, who didn’t have an opportunity to take on the world, is a story all too common.
Under President Obama’s Priority Enforcement Program, a person in the country illegally will only be detained or removed in a few limited circumstances. Some say that nearly 90,000 illegal immigrants were released in 2015 thanks to this policy.
Secretary Jeh Johnson has claimed that only those that have laid down roots and do not have serious crimes would not be subject to removal. Yet, their words don’t match up with their actions. Local law enforcement, such as those in Omaha, have asked the federal government to take custody of certain individuals. But, the agency in charge refuses. It hides behind their so-called “priorities.”
The President has a constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Constitution does not say that the President shall make a list of which criminals would be punished or removed, and which criminals who may go about their lives. The Obama Administration may not agree with the laws that Congress passes, but that has no bearing on its responsibility to ensure the law is faithfully carried out.
The administration claims it is well within its constitutional duties under the doctrine of prosecutorial discretion. However, this administration’s approach at announcing its priorities, and only enforcing the law on individuals who fall under its priorities, is both unusual to, and an abuse of, prosecutorial discretion.
This is unusual to prosecutorial discretion because prosecutors do not usually announce their priorities, or when they will exercise prosecutorial discretion.
A liberal law professor and immigration attorney, Peter Margulies, explained that prosecutors strive “to keep prospective lawbreakers in the dark.” He explains that if prosecutorial discretion priorities are not kept secret, they “would effectively license the wrongdoing.”
He then goes on to give an example case of a burglary. He says:
“When an admitted burglar is youthful and the burglar’s ‘take’ is relatively modest, judges may not wish to sentence an offender to prison, and may look with favor on a plea bargain that reflects this sentiment. However, it would be difficult to imagine prosecutors soliciting applications from known burglars for a ‘burglars’ holiday’ that would guarantee a specific period of immunity.”
So, in other words, it is as ridiculous to let people contemplating illegally migrating to the United States know that they will get a pass under certain conditions as it would be to let people contemplating burglary know that they would be let off the hook if they meet certain qualifiers.
Or consider the drunk driver that killed Sarah Root. What message does this send to people who make a conscience decision to get behind the wheel after drinking? What this case says is that drunk driving – unless convicted – is not a serious enough offense to force removal proceedings.
This is a “moral hazard.”
Hence, this Administration’s Priority Enforcement Program is creating a “moral hazard” and giving license to illegal activity.
Sarah Root is one of many victims in the past few weeks who died at the hands of illegal immigrants.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Chelsea Hogue was put into a coma when Jose Aguilar, an undocumented person, hit her while driving under the influence of alcohol. ICE issued a detainer, and did take custody of Aguilar, but released him a day later, again because he had “no prior significant misdemeanor or felony conviction record.”
Then there’s Esmid Pedraza, who had been transferred to ICE in August 2013 after serving time for driving under the influence. However, he was let go on bond because of limited detention space. ICE said in a statement: “Due to the limited availability of detention space, ICE prioritizes the use of its immigration detention beds for convicted felons, known gang members, and other individuals whose conviction records indicate they pose a likely threat to public safety.” This is ironic given that the administration fails to live up to the mandated detention bed limit that Congress sets every year. Now, just a little over two years after his drunk driving offense, Pedraza is charged with the murder of his girlfriend Stacey Aguilar.
Then, on March 8, an individual illegally present in the United States, allegedly murdered five people in Kansas and Missouri. The suspect entered the country in 1993, committed a series of crimes, and was removed from the United States in 2004. He attempted to illegally enter again the same month but was given “Voluntary Return.” However, he returned at some point and continued his criminal ways. The suspect had been arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including: communicating a threat with intent to terrorize; battery of a spouse; several driving without a license offenses; a subsequent felony conviction for communicating a threat with intent to terrorize, reportedly based on his threat to kill his wife with a rifle, for which he was sentenced to incarceration for two years; two arrests for driving under the influence, which produced one conviction; and a conviction for domestic battery. On at least two occasions, ICE was notified of the suspect. But, for various reasons, did not take custody of him. There was a major failure between the feds and local law enforcement.
People are illegally entering the country, being removed, entering again, and committing more crimes. Illegal re-entries are happening because there are no consequences. That is what happened in Kate Steinle’s death. And, that’s why we need to move on Kate’s law. That bill would deter people from illegally re-entering by enhancing penalties and establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for certain individuals with previous felony convictions.
The Obama Administration cannot continue to turn a blind eye to sanctuary communities and ignore those who have broken our laws by illegally crossing the border time and again.
How many more people have to die? How many more women – like Kate Steinle, Sarah Root, Chelsea Hogue, and Stacey Aguilar – are going to be taken from their family and friends? The parents of these young women are grieving today. Yet, their stories fall on deaf ears at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Things have got to change. The President must rethink his policies and must find a way to ensure that criminal immigrants are taken off the streets. The Obama Administration should try enforcing the law, instead of its priorities, for the sake of the American people.
I yield the floor.