Protecting illegal immigrants to catch criminals

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2011 - 10:17 AM

One Minnesota county has done an about-face on deportation, bucking federal law to stop violence.

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Patricia Rodriquez Sanchez, a worker at Quality Pork Processors plant smiled as she walked dinner over to the the dining table with her daughter, Ahylin, 11, in Austin, October, 3 2011. Sanchez was a victim of domestic violence and her case changed the way Mower County deals with undocumented workers who are victims of violent crimes.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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AUSTIN, MINN. - It was after 1 a.m. when the policeman arrived at Patricia Sanchez's house, and he understood in a glance why she had dialed 911. Her face was streaked with scratches and her neck bore the red imprint of a man's hand.

"You're lucky to be alive,'' he said. He arrested her husband for domestic violence with intent to strangle and told the young woman to get an order for protection as soon as the courthouse opened.

The next morning, before returning to work at her packinghouse job, Sanchez stood at a court clerk's window, filling out a piece of paper that was supposed to be strong enough to stop abuse.

While Sanchez waited at the courthouse, though, police were at her home, searching for evidence that her husband was an illegal immigrant. Rummaging through drawers and bedding, an officer noticed a framed photograph on the living room wall. It depicted a woman identified as Lisa Salazar in her white work uniform and hard hat, honored as Quality Pork Processors' Employee of the Month. Except that Salazar looked exactly like Patricia Sanchez. Police also found documents suggesting Sanchez had committed identity fraud to get work and receive benefits for her children.

A week later, Sanchez sat bewildered in the Mower County jail, facing immigration charges and the threat of deportation back to Mexico. The victim had become a suspect.

The frightening June night in 2009 transformed Sanchez's life -- and now it has thrust Mower County into the vanguard of a national struggle over illegal immigration, policing and crime.

Today, after more than a year of soul-searching over law and justice, Mower County has a striking new policy: Illegal immigrants who become victims of violent crime will not be charged with document offenses, giving them immunity to aid the prosecution of more serious, violent felonies.

In Austin, a storied meatpacking town of 24,700 near the Iowa border, the issue has been pushed to the fore by an unlikely voice: Jeremy Clinefelter, the tough-minded assistant prosecutor who helped deport Sanchez's husband and then charged her with felony fraud.

"It didn't feel right morally,'' Clinefelter said. "We're prosecutors. But more that, we're here to be fair and just.''

Mower County may be unique in the Upper Midwest, according to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. But its new approach, he said, could have wider repercussions by removing a form of blackmail used against illegal immigrants.

"The abuser says, 'You can't go to the police, or I'm going to tell them you're here illegally,' '' Beaumaster said. "It's a legitimate use of prosecutorial discretion in assuring that a defendant doesn't get to use our immigration laws as a weapon.''

Yet Mower County wouldn't put its new philosophy into practice until another act of violence played out this year, when another illegal immigrant answered his door and found himself looking down the barrel of a shotgun.

The dilemma

Since Congress created a program called Secure Communities in 2007, local police and prosecutors have been playing an ever-larger role in enforcing federal immigration law. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have been arrested and deported, often in a process that started with a routine traffic stop or a set of fingerprints taken at a county jail.

But one question keeps arising: How can police and prosecutors build trust in growing ethnic communities when illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding fear they will face arrest and deportation if they step forward to report crime?

Secure Communities places a priority on catching dangerous illegal immigrants convicted of violent felonies, yet federal documents show that one-fourth of the immigrants deported under the act had no criminal convictions.

At least five states have dropped out of the program in the past year, amid concerns about the potential for abusive and counterproductive tactics.

In Minnesota, however, some influential lawmakers are eager to have the state participate, even though that's not mandatory until 2013.

Last May, after a late-night hearing and without debate, the Legislature adopted an amendment requiring Minnesota to take part in Secure Communities. That legislation stalled at Gov. Mark Dayton's desk, but the passionate debate is not over.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is among those who think Secure Communities is a fine idea.

"Do my deputies go out on the streets and roads looking to arrest illegal aliens?'' he said. "Absolutely not. But if someone is stopped for breaking laws and there is an identity issue involved, then they may be booked like anyone else who breaks a law, and that kind of information is available for [immigration officials] to review.''

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who pressed the legislation last spring, says the issue has been unfairly politicized. "I agree we should have amnesty programs for victims and witnesses who report crimes,'' she said. "But if we're going to house them in our jails or in our custody, we want to find out whether they're here illegally.''

But civil liberties lawyers -- and some prominent lawmen -- disagree.

"You're going to put the community in an adversarial position with their police,'' says John Harrington, a state senator and former St. Paul police chief. "You're taking out the people who are in the best position to tell us about dangerous people in our community.''

A few days after the assault on Sanchez, Jeremy Clinefelter walked into his office, skimmed through the papers on his desk and found what seemed to be just another routine file: Patricia Sanchez, aka Lisa Salazar -- felony fraud-forgery.

Then it hit him: This was the same woman whose husband he had just charged with domestic assault.

He thought it through. Here was a woman who had found the courage to step out of the shadows, confront a criminal and call the police. He knew the investigating officers, too. They hadn't gone to her house intending to trap her. They had stumbled onto the evidence.

He couldn't remember Mower County having a similar case, and now it was his.

Clinefelter was a Hamline law grad. He hailed from Ohio and still kept a photo of a red-drenched Buckeye football stadium on his office wall. He married a woman from Austin and decided it was a good place to settle down. He had started as an assistant prosecutor in 2003, the same year that Patricia Sanchez showed up at Quality Pork to receive her hard hat and knife.

He soon found that, geographically and emotionally, Austin sat at the center of an immigration wave roiling southern Minnesota. The big meatpacking plants across the state's southern tier required an endless supply of workers willing to do grueling, dangerous jobs for modest wages. People willing to travel thousands of miles from the Texas-Mexico border for low wages satisfied it.

But there was a hidden cost to the boom. Austin had hundreds of residents with two, sometimes three, different names. They had purchased stolen IDs from brokers along the Mexican border or once they arrived in the Midwest. That meant there were also hundreds of victims of identity theft somewhere -- crime victims who suffered because of immigrants seeking work.

Inside the plants, the illegal immigrants and their supervisors had a running one-liner: "What's your name today?" a boss would ask as he walked down the line. The worker would smile and just keep cutting.

"It's no secret [that packinghouses] frequently employ illegal aliens using assumed identities," Clinefelter said. "That itself is a federal issue. But it is virtually impossible for an illegal alien to work without [also] committing multiple violations of state law, anywhere from traffic offenses -- no driver's license -- all the way to felony offenses.

"We'll prosecute violations of Minnesota law,'' Clinefelter added. "But cleaning up immigration is a federal issue."

From 2000 to 2009, the Hispanic population in Mower County more than doubled, to nearly 3,500, part of a larger immigration wave statewide. Clinefelter's stolen-identity caseload was running at 50 to 70 files per year by 2005, most of them illegal immigrants. He'd become the office expert on document crimes.

To Clinefelter, however, court files weren't the truest reflection of Austin's new demographics. When he drove through town, whether to one of his children's dance recitals or to play hardball in the town's Over 30 League, he found it more revealing to measure Austin's changing character by the colors and sounds he picked up backstage or along a dugout bench.

On a Saturday morning, he noticed that city basketball courts along the Cedar River were packed with dozens of Hispanic players. All teams in custom uniforms, with their own referees and families hooting friendly Spanish catcalls.

At a dance recital, he had watched his kindergarten son -- red hair and blue eyes -- rush up to a Hispanic family sitting shyly off to the side. "Bianca!' the boy shouted to the little girl. She was his class pal from their reading group. "Dad, she's a Red Cricket!''

Now, Clinefelter had the troubling Sanchez file in front of him. He walked next door to his boss' office.

The lawyers debate

County Attorney Kristen Nelsen listened patiently as Clinefelter outlined the case. She trusted her deputy's instincts and heard him out. Then the debate began.

"What if we'd found drugs in that house?'' she said. "Would we look the other way? A stolen car out front? Would we ignore that because she's the victim of domestic abuse?

"Where do we say, 'Hold on a minute?' '' Nelson said. "What about the people on the other side of identity fraud --the ones who've had their identities stolen?''

Clinefelter came back at her. If we start prosecuting people like Sanchez, he said, it will have a chilling effect on future cases.

The argument went back and forth.

Nelsen was one of Austin's daughters who took the long way home. She had graduated from Austin High School, then the University of Minnesota and then Hamline Law School. She had headed west to Las Vegas for a spell, prosecuting violent felonies, and then became a prosecutor in the District of Columbia.

The road trip had left a mark.

"I learned how to be a prosecutor in Vegas,'' she said. "Lots of charges and stiff penalties. Minnesota people don't go to prison as often as they would in other places. I have a tendency to be on the harsh end."

In the Sanchez case, Nelsen was not moved. Mower County charged the young woman with aggravated forgery, a felony likely to put her on a federal deportation plane.

'I'm not a bad person'

As a teenager, Patricia Sanchez had risked her life crossing the Mexican border and the treacherous Sonoran Desert to get to the United States for a better life. Now, in the summer of 2009, she found herself in a Sherburne County jail cell leased by federal immigration authorities. Her sister in California had taken the children.

"People at immigration see us as criminals,'' she recalled. "I told them: 'I came here to work. I don't use drugs, I don't drink. I am not a bad person.' ''

Meanwhile, her case had been taken up by a St. Paul attorney, former Ramsey County District Judge Alberto Miera. He argued that the police had conducted an illegal search of Sanchez's purse and wanted the fraud case dismissed, a move that infuriated County Attorney Nelsen.

Finally, the attorneys agreed to go to trial on a charge of simple forgery, still a felony. A judge found Sanchez guilty. She received a year's stay, marked down to a misdemeanor if she obeyed the law.

Then, satisfied with a finding of guilt, Clinefelter and Nelsen took a step on Sanchez's behalf -- the crucial step that could save her from deportation. They supported her application for a special visa granted to victims of domestic violence, a document known as a U-Visa. It worked.

By that fall, Sanchez was released from federal custody, reunited with her children, and back at work on the cutting line at Quality Pork.

But the conclusion of her case didn't settle the larger question for Mower County. By late 2010, police Capt. Bill McKichan was back in Clinefelter's office, not to debate the merits of Ohio State football, but to describe the flak that police were catching from Hispanic community groups.

He said Hispanics, wary from the Sanchez case, weren't stepping forward to help solve major crimes they knew about. He wanted a clear policy on immigration crimes from Nelsen's office.

All across southern Minnesota, police and prosecutors were coming to grips with the same dilemma. Just 130 miles west on I-90, the city of Worthington was the scene of a 2006 immigration raid in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with Kevlar vests and automatic weapons swept through the Swift meatpacking plant, arresting 230 workers and carrying them off in chartered buses. Distrust permeated the city. To this day, authorities in Worthington say, immigrants often refuse to help police for fear of being deported.

Clinefelter agreed with McKichan. "Finally, I just walked in and said to Kristen that I thought this was bull, and I outlined why,'' he said.

This time, Nelsen agreed. She struck a verbal agreement with police that, going forward, illegal immigrants who were crime victims would not be arrested and charged for their document violations.

"The re-victimization issue came to the surface through this case,'' Nelson said. "We're having our evolution. You have to figure out what's your greater purpose.''

Officials from ICE wouldn't comment on Mower County's policy. But a spokesman for the Bloomington office said: "ICE has a significant history and reputation for working closely with all law enforcement agencies -- local, state, federal and international -- to accomplish the common goal of ensuring public safety. While local governments decide how to approach law-making in their communities, ICE will continue to enforce a wide range of federal immigration laws.''

Immunity for a witness

Months went by and then, in March 2011, a bloody altercation put the county's new policy to the test.

A man had been shot in an Austin apartment and, bleeding profusely, was being rushed by helicopter to Rochester for emergency care. Detective Sgt. Todd Clennon had been assigned to the case and now, in the man's apartment, was following the blood trail across the floor.

Clennon's eyes scanned the room slowly. A spent shotgun case. Flesh on the wall. Religious figurines.

Deeply Catholic, Clennon thought. Probably Hispanic.

"Then it occurred to me that this apartment was really being taken care of,'' Clennon recounted later. "My first thought was this doesn't appear to be a place where you have a guy selling dope."

The shooting was Clennon's first big case as a detective. It would also be the case that tested Mower County's new approach to immigration enforcement.

Alejandro Jimenez-Gonzalez had been shot in the thigh by an assailant who had come to the door holding a shotgun, apparently mistaking it for the home of a drug dealer. Jimenez-Gonzalez had managed to get his two kids outside, and then at the last second, had pushed the gun barrel away from his stomach as the gunman fired.

In the bedroom, Clennon and his partner found a dresser littered with IDs.

"It took me 10 seconds to realize he had two different names,'' Clennon recalled.

The next day Clennon briefed Police Chief Brian Krueger at dawn. He said the victim had been using false documents, probably to get work, but said that issue was "about 800th'' on their list of concerns. The chief agreed. Within days, a suspect was arrested in Rochester and Clennon felt they had a solid case of attempted murder.

A few days later, Clennon took a call from Kristen Nelsen. She had heard that Jimenez-Gonzalez and his family planned to skip town to avoid getting busted for document fraud.

"I'm thinking we need to scramble the jets,'' Nelson told the detective. "Otherwise, this [case] will fall apart."

Nelsen told Clennon she was prepared to give Jimenez-Gonzalez and his wife a letter of immunity from any immigration charges so that he would stay in Austin to testify in the murder case. Clinefelter would draft it.

"My office will not charge you for using false documents to reside in this community,'' the letter read. "This immunity ... has been granted to you because you are the victim of a violent crime.''

It didn't take Clennon long to find Jimenez-Gonzalez's wife.

"We pull up, you could see the [suspicion] in her face,'' Clennon said. Was it a ploy? A trick?

His partner read Nelsen's immunity letter to her in Spanish. "You could see this glow come over her face,'' Clennon said. "They could live in the U.S. without a knock on their door."

Meanwhile, Clinefelter wanted the family under formal federal immigration protection. He contacted Dan Donnelly, an experienced immigration attorney in Austin, who took the case pro bono.

Jimenez-Gonzalez has agreed to stay. The man accused of shooting him is expected to face trial before the end of the year, and Jimenez-Gonzalez will be there to testify.

The decision to trust the judicial system has come with a cost. Jimenez-Gonzalez lost his job at Quality Pork for using false documents - employers now face stiff federal penalties for employing undocumented workers.

"But I bet Alejandro would say it was worth it,'' Clennon said. "Shoot me in the leg in order to get that visa? [It got] that fear out, so they never have to be looking over their back.''

As for Patricia Sanchez, she works the day shift at Quality Pork. The kids are doing well in school and they are all living legally in the United States.

She is dating a man who, she says, treats her very well. He said he is an illegal immigrant who found a job in Austin.

Staff writer Alejandra Matos contributed to this report. Paul McEnroe 612-673-1745

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