CROSSING THE LINE

HOW ILLEGAL ALIENS WITH CRIMINAL RECORDS COME OVER THE RIVER--AND THROUGH THE CRACKS.AMERICA OR BUST ILLEGAL ALIENS CAN COMMIT BURGLARIES, THEFTS AND ASSAULTS IN DENVER--AND HAVE LITTLE TO FEAR FROM THE INS.

Munoz was ordered to leave the country by September 1, 1994. To no one's surprise, she missed her bus.

By April of this year, when INS agents received the appropriate paperwork and got the time to go after Munoz, they weren't the only ones on her tail; Denver cops wanted her, too. The police suspected Munoz of stealing several hundred dollars' worth of jewelry from an employer and of burglarizing the same man two weeks later, making off with an estimated $30,000 in raw gold.

Members of the two agencies tracked her down together. Denver police then charged her in the felony jewelry theft but were unable to come up with enough evidence to charge her in the gold burglary. Instead of a court case and jail time, Munoz was locked up in the Wackenhut facility before being deported to Mexico.

Neither the police nor the INS expects her to stay there.

One of the few things in Colorado's tangled immigration system that does seem to be working is Denver's new approach to aliens arrested on drug charges. The surge in alien prisoners that hit the Denver county jail earlier this year was largely due to illegals awaiting trial for drug possession. But officials say that situation has eased due to the city's new drug court. That court, along with the district attorney's office, the state public defender and the INS, is working to see that undocumented aliens arrested on low-level drug charges are dealt with swiftly.

"What happens," says Denver District Judge Bill Meyer, "is that the INS conducts interviews with individuals in the Denver city jail, determines their immigration status and puts holds on individuals. When [the inmate] comes into court, if it is a relatively low level of possession, generally the disposition is a plea of guilty to the primary charge, and they're held pending deportation. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has dedicated an administrative law judge to handle the drug court cases on each Thursday of the week. Because of that availability, the deportation hearings are held quickly and they are deported quickly."

Drug dealers are designated by the government as "aggravated felons," which means that if they return to the United States after being deported, they face additional sanctions, including lengthy stints in federal prison.

Back at the Denver city jail, Pablo Vera-Jimenez is about to see how the process works. He slumps in a chair tucked inside a cramped interview room, sipping from a carton of low-fat milk as INS agent Firth fills out immigration documents and questions him in Spanish. Vera-Jimenez appears weary and answers in a low, unanimated voice.

Police arrested Vera-Jimenez the night before on Larimer Street with $60 worth of tar heroin in his pocket. They said he was trying to sell his stash to a female employee at a local bar. But Vera-Jimenez hints, with an embarrassed air, that he was only trying to pick up the woman.

Vera-Jimenez is just 24, but he claims to have lived in the United States on and off for the past seven years. His family remains in Mexico, he says. They put him out on the streets because he didn't want to go to school.

However, his story is filled with inconsistencies. Although one version of his self-told biography would place him in the United States when he was just fourteen, he says he was seventeen when he hopped a northbound freight at Ciudad Acuna and first entered the country.

The train got him as far as Crystal City, Texas, he says, before immigration officials swooped down, alerted to the presence of stowaways by a gruesome accident--another Mexican national's foot was severed when it was caught between two freight cars.

"I ran like hell," Vera-Jimenez says in Spanish, "so they didn't catch me."
In fact, he says, the INS didn't catch up to him until one day about a year ago, when he was found "bien borracho" (good and drunk) aboard a bus in Plano, Texas. Given the choice of jail time or a "voluntary return" to Mexico, Vera-Jimenez chose the latter.

INS agents drove him and others to Laredo and the border, he says, but he stayed in his homeland only three hours before floating across the Rio Grande, back into United States. Then he hopped a train again. This time, he says, he settled in Colorado because he was told he could make more money here. A roofer by trade, he says he found plenty of work.

Within two weeks of his April arrest in Denver on the heroin charge, Vera-Jimenez is in the custody of the INS. He pleads out to the drug charge and is granted probation on the condition that he cooperates in being deported. Because he now has a drug conviction on his record, Vera-Jimenez could face time in federal prison if he returns to the United States and is arrested.

But even before accepting the deal, Vera-Jimenez admits that, given the odds of being caught and what he already knows about the American bureaucracy, the possibility of prison time might not keep him away. "I've got to live and work and feed myself," he tells Firth. "There's nothing I can do in Mexico. I would take the chance.

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