U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Sarah Saldana gave a baffling — and seemingly inaccurate — explanation during a Senate hearing on Tuesday for why federal immigration agents failed to detain an illegal alien who killed a 21-year-old Iowa woman in a drunken street race in Omaha in January.
ICE ignored a detainer request made by the Omaha police department last month for 19-year-old Eswin Mejia, Saldana said, because his victim, Sarah Root, had “not passed away” at the time the illegal alien drunk driver bailed out of jail.
That comment appears to be inaccurate since Root died hours after the Jan. 31 crash, in which Mejia was street racing with a .241 blood-alcohol level — three times the legal limit.
Mejia, a Honduran national, left jail on Feb. 5 after posting $5,000 bail. He is now on the run.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse asked Saldana why ICE did not respond to the Omaha police department’s request to detain Mejia after he posted his bail.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, Root’s father contacted an Omaha police accident investigator expressing his concern with a county judge’s Feb. 4 decision to set a $50,000 bond for Mejia. The illegal alien’s flight risk was also of concern for Root’s father. Mejia had a record for various traffic infractions and for failure to appear in court. ICE never detained him after those run-ins with the law.
The police investigator contacted ICE requesting an immigration hold for Mejia based on Root’s father’s concerns.
But ICE denied the initial request, and so the investigator and her lieutenant placed a call to an ICE supervisor. Their call was never returned, however, deputy Omaha police chief Dave Baker told the World-Herald.
Saldana gave conflicting excuses for why ICE failed to detain Mejia. During one part of her testimony she claimed that the agency did not have enough time to respond to the Omaha police department’s request. In another part, she said that ICE field officers should have used better judgement in exercising prosecutorial discretion.
“We tried to act,” Saldana told Sasse at one point. “But I believe there was a matter of hours between the time that we were contacted and the actual release.”
“It is very hard for us to get to every inquiry that is made by law enforcement,” she added.
Saldana said later in her testimony that ICE field officers can use prosecutorial discretion to detain illegal aliens if they believe that the person “presents a public safety threat.”
“In this case Sarah Root is dead,” Sasse pointed out. “What if someone kills a U.S. citizen? That doesn’t meet the threshold?”
Saldana responded with a confusing if not inaccurate answer.
“That was after the fact, sir,” she said.
“I understand that that person was injured and had not, when that four hour period of time, seriously injured, but had not passed away until later.”
It is unclear what Saldana meant by that statement. Root died on Jan. 31. Mejia bonded out of jail a week later.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarification.
According to Sasse and various news reports, ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said last month that the case “did not meet ICE’s enforcement priorities” under President Obama’s Nov. 2014 enforcement priority policy because Mejia “had no prior significant misdemeanor or felony conviction record.”
ICE does not necessarily detain illegal aliens who have pending felony charges, apparently even in cases of felony vehicular homicide.
Obama’s enforcement priority executive action, which has come under intense criticism, places a priority on deporting illegal aliens with felony records, significant misdemeanor convictions, gang ties and those who pose terrorist threats.He de-prioritized illegal aliens with convictions for drunk driving and lesser assault charges, including even domestic assault.
“It is a judgement that is being exercised by the person based on what they see at the time,” Saldana said of prosecutorial discretion, adding that in the Root case it “could have been exercised a different way.”
“That’s us looking back,” she continued. “I want to look forward so that we don’t have that situation arise again.”