For too long now I have heard that illegal immigrants are not criminals and that they have come to America only to work. Not really. Whether or not they want to work, they have already committed a crime by illegally entering the United States. I am still naive enough to think that national sovereignty should mean something. Whether or not they want to work, they also come here to have babies. The birthrate for illegal-alien mothers is more than double that for native-born American women, and higher even than the birthrate for legal immigrants. Moreover, the only-want-to-work argument ignores the enormous costs to U.S. taxpayers that come with illegal aliens, especially for medical care and for schooling and other services we provide for their children, American born or not. These costs are helping to sink the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District in a sea of debt.
As if this isn’t bad enough, many illegal immigrants come here precisely because they are criminals and they find America a target-rich environment. This is particularly true of Mexican criminals, who make a practice of committing crimes in the United States, slipping back into Mexico, and then, rested and equipped with new identities, returning here. I have seen Mexicans deported for their third or fourth time, and each time, the same criminal has a new name. Since this continues to occur with alarming frequency, I am forced to conclude that our southern border remains porous and that our federal officials are not serious about border enforcement.
My own Ventura County in Southern California suffers from the depredations of such illegal aliens daily. Our local newspaper, the Star, prints a weekly feature, “Most Wanted of Ventura County,” which includes photos, names, crimes, and full descriptions of the six most-wanted miscreants each week. Week in and week out, four or five of the six, and occasionally six of the six, are Hispanic. Not infrequently, a note will say, “Thought to have fled to Mexico.” There are other clues to their illegal-alien status. Their first names are rendered in Spanish rather than in English: There is Timoteo instead of Timothy, Gerardo instead of Gerard, Antonio instead of Anthony, Guillermo instead of William, Rogelio instead of Roger, Diego instead of James. The old-time Mexican-American families in California usually give their children Anglo names. Then, too, many of the miscreants have aliases. Gerardo Rodrigo Lopez is also Rodrigo Ramirez Velasco. An entirely different criminal, Gerardo Garcia Granados, is also Gerardo Rodrigo Lopez. You figure it out. Law enforcement can’t.
Late in March, Jose Antonio Medina Arreguin, called the King of Heroin by Mexican authorities, was arrested in the state of Michoacán. For at least the last three or four years he had smuggled an average of 440 pounds of heroin each month into California, earning his organization a monthly gross of $12 million. His distribution center was Oxnard, which is Ventura County’s largest and most Hispanic city. One third or more—some say it may be closer to one half—of Oxnard residents are illegal aliens or the children of illegal aliens. Oxnard’s crime dwarfs that of every other town in Ventura County. With a population of 180,000, Oxnard usually has 25 or more murders per year. Some 20 miles to the east in Ventura County, Thousand Oaks, with a population of 130,000, largely white and native born, usually has no murders in any given year, although it occasionally sees one or two. Other crime categories reveal similarly striking disparities between the two cities.
Arreguin, or Don Pepe as he was known, found Oxnard ideal for his operations. His gangsters could blend in with the population, move about quite openly, and supply black-tar heroin and methamphetamines to a network of dealers from San Diego to San Jose. Oxnard police and Ventura County sheriff’s deputies learned of the operation in 2007 and formed the Ventura County Combined Agency Team. Wiretaps and surveillance led to the first break in 2008 with the arrest of dozens of street dealers and of Don Pepe’s drug lords in California—Salvador Alvarez, Julio Ramirez, Jr., and Julio Ramirez, Sr.—and the seizure of 28 pounds of methamphetamines and 131 pounds of heroin. The amount of heroin seized was unprecedented in Ventura County, and yet it represents only a small portion of what Arreguin’s organization distributed throughout California each month.
Despite intercepting and taping the phone conversations between Arreguin and the Ramirezes, authorities knew Arreguin only as Don Pepe. They eventually determined that he spent most of his time in Michoacán but that the heroin came from poppies grown farther south in the state of Guerrero. The bulk of the heroin was transported to Tijuana and then smuggled across the border in concealed compartments in cars to the distribution center in Oxnard. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration presented the evidence gathered by the Ventura County Combined Agency Team to Mexican authorities, and the latter began their own investigation. After two years of work they finally identified Don Pepe as Arreguin and arrested him in Michoacán’s fourth-largest city, Apatzingán. Transported to Mexico City, Don Pepe was paraded in front of reporters, while heavily armed police officers, their faces covered with knit masks and their chests with body armor, stood guard. Arreguin was clearly a big catch.
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten is now trying to have Arreguin extradited to Ventura County for trial on various drug-trafficking charges. It could take a year or more to get Arreguin extradited. He may never be. Thus far, Mexican authorities have not revealed whether Don Pepe is a principal figure in La Familia, the powerful drug cartel that dominates Michoacán and has killed hundreds of rival drug traffickers, police, and soldiers. Considering the size of his operation, it would seem that he must have had at least a working relationship with the cartel. I suspect either that serious obstacles will arise to his extradition or that he will not live to be extradited. If he does arrive safe and sound here in Ventura County, his trial will be a sensation.
District Attorney Totten was elated at the success of the Combined Agency Team, saying, “It is the first time that local law enforcement has investigated and prosecuted a drug trafficking organization of this nature that is operating deep within the country of Mexico.” Totten’s language is a bit paradoxical. Thus far Ventura authorities have only prosecuted the portion of Arreguin’s drug-trafficking organization that was operating well within the country of the United States. We haven’t penetrated deep into Mexico; Mexican criminals have penetrated deep into the United States. These Mexican gangsters seem to come and go across our border with impunity and live openly among other illegal aliens—those who come here “only to work”—in our towns and cities. Why should such conditions prevail?
Until the last few years, most counties made no attempt to determine the immigration status of inmates in their jails. Ventura County was a pioneer in the effort to determine status but only because of the work of the congressman who represents a good portion of the county, Elton Gallegly. More than a decade ago he created a program that assigned federal immigration agents to the Ventura County jail. At that time only two agents worked the jail and usually for no more than two days per week. The agents were able to interview only a portion of the suspected illegal aliens who are arrested and jailed daily. Twenty or thirty were identified each day, but others passed through the system undetected. “There are many that we miss,” admitted agent David Wales in July 2006. He said that agents prioritized their interviews, starting with those suspected illegal aliens accused of the most heinous crimes. “There’s nothing that is 100 percent, but we work very hard to keep those folks from getting back on the street.”
Late in 2008 Gallegly’s program was improved by the Secure Communities Initiative, which allows county jails to compare inmates’ fingerprints with FBI criminal records and with immigration records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. The fingerprints housed in the database include only those of people who have had contact with the department. Nonetheless, since implementation of the Secure Communities Initiative, 18,000 inmates, charged with such Level I crimes as murder, kidnapping, and rape, have been identified as illegal aliens. Thus far, 4,000 of them have been deported. Another 25,000 illegal aliens charged with lesser crimes such as burglary have been deported—but that is only a fraction of those incarcerated. Just how many illegal aliens are in our county jails—not prisons—is a matter of speculation, but the figure is conservatively put at more than 100,000.
It is well and good that thousands of illegal aliens who have committed crimes such as murder or rape or burglary have been apprehended and deported, but why did we not stop them at our border in the first place?
Deportation gives the impression that the federal government is finally taking some real action. However, as long as the border remains porous, the illegal-alien felons simply return at their own discretion. For a time I kept a file that eventually ran into the hundreds on local illegal aliens who had been deported multiple times after committing serious felonies. There is now a new crime: committing a felony after previously being deported. It seems unlikely the new law will have much of an effect. Recently, Jose Uriel Zamora was arrested in Santa Paula, once upon a time a quaint Ventura County town that has seen its illegal-alien and gang population multiply severalfold over the last three decades. Zamora was charged with weapons violations, street terrorism, animal cruelty (mistreatment of pit bulls), and committing felonies after previously being deported. I expect to see Zamora tried, convicted, and deported. I also expect to see him back in Santa Paula or some other once-quaint California town before too many years have passed.
One Oxnard resident who was deported and came back to murder (allegedly) is Maximo Tamayo-Flores. A routine traffic stop led to Flores’s undoing. When a police officer approached the small pickup truck Flores was driving, a woman jumped out screaming. Flores roared off but crashed a short distance away and was arrested after a struggle. Speaking in Spanish, the woman claimed that Flores had murdered her husband, Raymond Quintero Rodriguez, and dumped his body over the side of the Pacific Coast Highway north of Ventura. The body was subsequently found on a rocky slope between the PCH and the surf. Flores was immediately charged with assault on a police officer and evading arrest. He was later charged with felony illegal entry into the United States, an offense applied to those who have been deported and have illegally reentered. It is expected that he will also soon be charged with the murder of Rodriguez.
Over the last 30 years I’ve followed hundreds of similar cases involving illegal aliens in Ventura County—and Ventura County is a relative paradise when compared with Los Angeles County. None of this has to be. We could deport not only all criminal illegal aliens but all illegal aliens if only we had the political will. That we don’t at least deport all illegal aliens who have doubled down by committing crimes—in addition to illegal entry—is especially galling.
For those who like to pretend that the problem with mass deportation of illegal aliens is not a matter of political will but of logistics, there is a precedent that stands their argument on its head. By the time that Dwight Eisenhower arrived in the White House in 1953, the numbers of illegal aliens from Mexico had climbed to some two million. Nearly all resided in three states: California, Arizona, and Texas. U.S. citizens in those states complained that illegal aliens undercut wages, committed crimes, caused a general deterioration of American communities, and had children who overcrowded local schools and burdened entire school districts. American businessmen and corporate farmers—with a good number of congressmen such as Sen. Lyndon Johnson in their pockets—argued that the labor provided by the illegal aliens was desperately needed. The argument was as fallacious then as it is now. There was no shortage of labor if the wages were good. In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, where most farm laborers were illegal aliens, wages were half of what American-born farm laborers earned in the rest of Texas. Employers of illegal aliens, then as now, were making out like bandits, while U.S. citizens were paying for it.
Early in 1954, President Eisenhower appointed retired Lt. Gen. Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Swing, who had commanded the 11th Airborne Division during World War II and was a West Point classmate of Ike’s, as the new commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Jumpin’ Joe, whose decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross and three Silver Stars, immediately formulated a plan for the apprehension and deportation of illegal aliens, naming it Operation Wetback. On D-day, June 17, 1954, some 750 INS agents began a sweep through Arizona and California. Within a month, Jumpin’ Joe’s boys had taken some 50,000 illegal aliens into custody, and an estimated half-million more, fearing arrest, had fled south of the border on their own.
During July, Swing sent his boys into Texas. By September they had 80,000 illegal aliens from the Lone Star state in custody. The INS estimated that another 500,000 to 700,000 illegal aliens left Texas voluntarily. There was a powerful incentive to do so. Those taken into custody were not simply dumped at the border but were put on buses and trains and escorted deep into Mexico, or on ships bound for Vera Cruz. Jumpin’ Joe kept his agents in the field to the end of the year, averaging 1,000 apprehensions per day. By 1955 nearly all illegal aliens had been repatriated, and for the rest of the decade, illegal border crossings were rare. The chief of the Border Patrol from 1960-73, Donald Coppock, said when interviewed in 2007 that, if Ike and Jumpin’ Joe were in charge of immigration enforcement today, they would rid the country of illegal aliens “in a minute.” He’s right.
This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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