Immigration and Crime: A Tragedy in Tampa

By At around 4 a.m. on Aug. 17, Jacey Laundree's sister got off work at The Docks Bar and Grill in Apollo Beach, Fla., south of Tampa. As soon as she walked out the back door, police say, three armed men jumped her and forced her back inside. They snatched about $300 from the cash register, bound her and a female co-worker with duct tape and forced both of them (unnamed to protect their privacy) into Laundree's sister's truck. The assailants then drove the women to an open field, where all three men raped them both at gunpoint, according to the cops. "You do exactly what we say, or we are going to kill you," Laundree says one of the men told her sister. From there, the attackers drove to an ATM and attempted to withdraw money using Laundree's sister's bank card. Afterward, police say, they took the women to another field and raped one of them yet again.

The assaults capped what one official in the Tampa Bay area called a weeks-long "reign of terror" by the three suspects—Rigoberto Martinez, 20, Vincente Reyes-Carbajal, 20, and Jose Walle, 13. The trio are also accused of breaking in to the Table restaurant in St. Petersburg on Aug. 3, stealing $2,000 in cash and a computer and raping a female employee. Prior to that, Martinez and an unidentified associate allegedly broke in to a couple's home in Gibsonton, Fla., on July 3, bound the boyfriend and raped his girlfriend repeatedly.

Though the rampage was devastating for all of the victims involved, there was an added layer of heartbreak for the Docks employees: that attack might have been avoided. Martinez, the group's alleged ringleader and an illegal immigrant, had been picked up and jailed by authorities on a separate violation less than two weeks before the Docks incident. But when law-enforcement officials contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requesting that the agency place an "immigration hold" on Martinez—which would allow them to keep him locked up until ICE agents could investigate him—they were denied. Lacking sufficient evidence to charge Martinez at the time, they had to let him go.

Martinez and his crew are now off the streets. They were arrested days after the Docks incident and charged with a host of crimes: sexual battery, armed robbery, armed kidnapping and grand theft, among others. The three men are scheduled to be arraigned this week; none has entered pleas yet. Reyes-Carbajal is also an illegal immigrant, according to ICE; Walle, who is legal, is being charged as an adult. All of their cases are being handled by the public defender's office, which declined to comment.

The authorities' handling of Martinez has set off shockwaves in the Tampa Bay area. Some residents are aghast that he was freed after police picked him up. In response, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who represents nearby counties, has called for a federal investigation. Beyond the lamentable specifics of Martinez's case, though, the episode highlights the dysfunctionality of the nation's immigration enforcement system. It shows the extent to which local authorities are overburdened by illegal immigrants who land in their jail cells. It illustrates ICE's difficulty with rooting out and deporting the most dangerous among them. And it raises questions about the federal government's priorities at a time when ICE appears to be focusing so many resources on rounding up mostly law-abiding illegal immigrants in workplace raids. "The national policy has not been effective in controlling the issue [of criminal illegal aliens]," says Sheriff Grady Judd of nearby Polk County. "It's not just a national problem. It's a national epidemic."

After the robbery and rape at the Table on Aug. 3, the restaurant manager told St. Petersburg police that he suspected Martinez, whom he described as a disgruntled former employee. The cops began following Martinez and after learning he had an outstanding warrant for a domestic-violence complaint, they hauled him in. Believing he was possibly undocumented, they called ICE twice to request a hold and explained that he was a suspect in a robbery and rape case, says St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt. But ICE denied the requests, saying it could only place the hold if the suspect was charged with a felony or if he'd already been deported once before, according to Proffitt. Once Martinez was jailed, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also contacted ICE. As it does with all foreign-born individuals that land in its custody, it sent Martinez's name to ICE by teletype. But since he apparently had no prior encounters with immigration authorities, his name didn't pop up in a database.

Whether this sequence of events demonstrates a lapse in judgment is subject to debate. The controversy centers on why ICE didn't grant the hold that St. Petersburg police requested. Given the gravity of the crimes Martinez was suspected of committing, shouldn't the agency have placed a hold on him? ICE spokesman Richard Rocha says immigration officials would have been more likely to do so if they'd been contacted verbally. When informed by NEWSWEEK that St. Petersburg police claimed to have done just that, Rocha said he'd "check out the details" and call back. A week later, he has yet to respond.

Once the controversy over Martinez's release erupted, Brown-Waite—a Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee—called for a federal investigation. Such a probe would hopefully "identify the areas where Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg and ICE dropped the ball with identifying and deporting this man," she said in a statement issued by her office. She seemed to single out the sheriff's office for criticism, though it's unclear on what basis. In response, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee accuses Brown-Waite of "political grandstanding." "I'm surprised that she doesn't have a clue how the system works," he says. "What in the hell are these people in Washington doing?" In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Brown-Waite backed off blaming the sheriff until an investigation could be completed and said, "the public deserves to know what went wrong and how we can prevent this from happening again."

The Martinez incident has opened the way for other law-enforcement officials to complain about ICE. Col. Dave Parrish, the detention department commander for the Hillsborough sheriff's office, says that ICE rarely retrieves undocumented felons who are required to register at the local jail after serving their prison sentences. "I don't know why they don't just pick them up at the prisons when they are let out, but they don't," says Parrish. "We used to call up ICE and tell them we had somebody … and they would not even respond." Earlier this year, Parrish gave up and forged an agreement with the Border Patrol to deport released felons.

Other officials have encountered similar unresponsiveness. Richard Johnson, a policeman in Largo, Fla., who writes the police blog, says he sought help from ICE last year while investigating the case of an illegal immigrant who had overstayed his student visa and reportedly threatened to shoot up a local college. When Johnson called the Tampa ICE office, he says the phone was disconnected. He checked the number with a dispatcher and was told that was the correct one. Eventually, he got in touch with ICE, he says, but "their attitude was, 'What do you want us to do?'" ICE agents took his information, but Johnson says he never heard from them again. (He doesn't know what ever happened to that illegal immigrant.) And the Tampa office isn't unique, according to Johnson. When he worked at the Kennesaw Police Department outside Atlanta, "it got to the point that we didn't even bother calling ICE anymore," he says.

ICE's Rocha defends the agency's performance. Though he won't respond to the specific complaints cited by Parrish and Johnson, he says, "There should be no delusions. ICE is working with local law enforcement every day, in every county. We do have limited resources, and we do have our focus on the worst offenders." As evidence, he notes that 1,700 criminal undocumented immigrants in Florida have been deported in the past year. Nationally, funding for criminal alien removal increased from $53 million in 2005 to $178 million in 2008, according to Rocha. And a new "Secure Communities" program focused on removing such individuals from jails and prisons received $200 million this year. Nevertheless, ICE estimates that to find and deport the country's 300,000 to 400,000 convicted criminal aliens would cost about $2 billion to $3 billion annually.

Some local sheriffs commend ICE's efforts. Judd in Polk County says that the agency has been picking up a growing number of illegal immigrants from his jail—156 this fiscal year, compared to 45 last year. "I find them cooperative," he says. In addition, he notes that ICE gets deluged with the names of possible undocumented immigrants from multiple law-enforcement offices. For instance, those 156 individuals picked up this year came from a pool of 4,455 reports his department sent to ICE. "They are just absolutely, totally overwhelmed. I don't fault ICE … ICE becomes the whipping post for failed national policy."

Still, given ICE's finite resources, many question how the agency is prioritizing them. After all, reports of ICE operations these days seem to center on workplace raids, like the one last month at a plant in Laurel, Miss., that resulted in the detention of nearly 600 immigrants. Such workers may have entered the country illegally, but the vast majority are otherwise law-abiding. "The fact of the matter is that ICE is focusing most of its efforts on immigrants with no criminal records whatsoever," says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "It's easier to round up large numbers of undocumented workers in factories and restaurants than checking on jails and removing criminals one by one." Nationwide ICE figures show that while noncriminal deportations increased from 138,739 in 2006 to 187,878 in 2007, criminal removals declined over the same period from 97,925 to 97,279.

There's one thing everyone can agree on: the federal government has shirked its duty to reform the immigration system. "The reason it's as bad as it is is because Congress has ignored it up to this point," says Judd. In the absence of federal action, the problem "is rolling down to us." Laundree, the sister of one of the Docks victims, doesn't single out any one agency for what happened to her loved one. Breakdowns in the immigration system are "everywhere and long-standing," she says. "There are so many failures, I'm not sure which one to pick as the worst."