Justice loses out to politics

Sitting nervously before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations, with husband Lucio at her side, Carrie Ruiz testified last week how her daughter was murdered. As she spoke, she squeezed a framed portrait photo of 17-year-old Felicia.

In October 1999, the girl hugged her mother good-bye and left for a Halloween party. Houston police detectives believe Jesus Gerardo Salazar, 20, drove her to a vacant lot about three miles away where Jay Luis Ferrel, 20, and Lisa Annette Huerta, 21, were waiting.

The girl’s body was found the next day, stabbed 39 times. Prosecutors believe the group had attempted to recruit her into a gang and Felicia refused.

Two years later, Lisa Huerta was sentenced to 30 years in prison for her part in the homicide. Two days following the sentencing, Jay Luis Ferrel was arrested.

Crime Stoppers offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to Salazar’s arrest, but to no avail. Salazar is now believed to be living somewhere in Venezuela. He had apparently lived in the United States since age 4 without authorization until he alledgedly eluded authorities with family help and returned to his homeland.

With the help of Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, the Ruizes learned an extradition agreement has been in effect between the United States and Venezuela since 1922. But the local district attorney, Chuck Rosenthal, has not pressed the issue, and the matter seems to be at a standstill. The Ruizes want to know why the long reach of the law has not brought Salazar to justice.

Carrie Ruiz’s testimony was part of 21 hearings held around the country concerning the Republican immigration reform bill that passed the House, but which remains in legislative limbo along with the Senate’s own immigration reform bill. Among other provisions, the House bill seeks to erect border fences and to make unauthorized status in the United States a felony offense, a move that could criminalize 11 million persons now in the country.

According to Democratic critics of the bill, the hearings were “road shows” aimed at stirring public support for some of the more draconian measures in the House bill.

Tragic as it may be, the case makes one wonder why the Ruiz case was even brought up in the context of a House bill that seems to have nothing to do with an extradition matter.

Even if the House bill were in effect, what would it do to bring the right parties to justice? The murder of Felicia Ruiz as a Homeland Security matter is stretching a terrible, terrible crime beyond the purview of the agency.

It seems to mock the clear thinking and perspective that congressional hearings are expected to provide. Instead, dragging the murder into the subcommittee’s hearing was tawdry political grandstanding, a distraction from the central issues in the context of a large, national debate.

There is a common misperception fostered by some politicians that police don’t ask suspects about their national origin and immigration status, allowing criminals to slip by.

However, Jaime Esparza, the chief prosecutor in El Paso, Texas, along with Houston police chief Harold Hurtt and Houston city council member Adrian Garcia, a former cop, testified at the congressional hearing that local police routinely ask for a suspect’s national origin and immigration status when investigating cases involving a jailable offense. They put to rest criticism that local cops deliberately do not ask too many questions because of so-called “sanctuary” practices.

Esparza’s testimony was also revealing about how law enforcement authorities don’t collaborate enough or form strategy task forces or create the right links between computer databases to allow them to obtain the information they need in an investigation. No one told Carrie Ruiz that most likely because of poor communication Salazar slipped through law enforcement’s fingers and returned to Venezuela rather than stand trial.

Nor did anyone explain that extradition is the issue at hand. Border security, unauthorized immigration, and criminalization of a large population will not answer a mother’s questions: “Where’s the justice for the victim? For my daughter? Where’s the justice?”

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, told Carrie Ruiz there was no Republican or Democrat difference of opinion about bringing the suspect in Felicia’s murder to justice.

Almost as an aside, Poe also said he had the impression “nobody trusts the federal government to do what it is supposed to do.” Maybe that’s because people expect hearings to provide appropriate and sensible discourse when it comes to issues concerning justice.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)