A federal immigration enforcement agency is admitting — in not so many words — that it failed miserably last month when it refused to detain an illegal alien charged with vehicular homicide who is now on the lam.
On Wednesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) named 19-year-old Edwin Mejia to its “Most Wanted” list.
“ICE will work tirelessly to ensure justice is done in this matter…including to further publicize this case by posting Mejia on ICE Most Wanted List,” ICE director Sarah Saldana said in a statement.
Mejia, a Honduran national who entered the U.S. illegally in 2013, was arrested in Omaha, Nebraska, on Jan. 31 and charged with felony vehicular homicide in the death of 21-year-old Sarah Root. Mejia was street racing with a blood-alcohol level of .241 when he rammed into the back of Root’s SUV.
Mejia, who also used the alias “Eswin,” has been on the run since posting bond to leave jail on Feb. 5. But he likely would not have the status of fugitive if ICE had honored the Omaha police department request for an immigration hold.
ICE’s decision to place Mejia on its “Most Wanted” list is incongruent with its initial response to the case, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse noted.
“This important development underscores the seriousness of the situation, something ICE should have recognized immediately,” the Republican said in a statement on Wednesday. “Mr. Mejia should not need to be on this list — he should be in jail.”
In a statement issued last month, the agency said it did not fulfill the Omaha police department’s detainer request because Mejia was not an “enforcement priority” because he “had no prior significant misdemeanor or felony conviction record.”
In Nov. 2014, President Obama de-prioritized some criminal aliens for removal. Those with drunk driving convictions or minor assault convictions were deemed a lower deportation priority than aliens with more serious criminal records. ICE field officers are also allowed to exercise discretion in determining which illegal aliens to detain.
ICE’s fumbling of the Mejia case was put on full display during a Senate Homeland Security hearing held earlier this month. (RELATED: ICE Director Gives Shocking Excuse For Failure To Detain Killer Illegal Alien)
During the session, ICE director Sarah Saldana made several demonstrably false statements about the case, including that ICE had only a “matter of hours” to respond to the Omaha police department’s detainer request. She also falsely claimed that Root was not dead when Mejia was released from jail.
In fact, Root had been dead for several days when a relative of Mejia’s paid the $5,000 needed to bail him out. A judge had set Mejia’s bond at $50,000 — an amount which Root’s father criticized since Mejia was a flight risk.
A timeline of events released by the Omaha police department highlights Saldana’s false statements.
The timeline, which was provided to The Daily Caller, shows that a police accident investigator called ICE at 8 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 5 in an attempt to get a detainer on Mejia.
ICE did not answer, so the investigator left a message. When the message was not returned, she called again at around 10:30 a.m.
“Her request is denied by ICE,” reads the timeline.
The investigator then gave ICE’s number to a police lieutenant. The official called twice, at 11 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m., according to the Omaha police department. Neither call was returned.
At around 5 p.m. that day, a relative of Mejia’s posted his bail. He was released from jail shortly before 9 p.m.
But in a line of questioning from Sasse during the Senate hearing earlier this month, Saldana asserted that ICE merely did not have enough time to respond to the detainer request.
“We tried to act,” Saldana told Sasse. “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.
Sasse pointed out that Root was dead, and asked: “What if someone kills a U.S. citizen? That doesn’t meet the threshold?”
That’s when Saldana responded with an 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.”
In fact, Root, who had graduated from college hours before Mejia rammed into her car, was declared dead days before Mejia was released from jail. ICE was also given 12 hours to respond to the detainer request, not the four hours that Saldana appeared to claim.
Asked for comment on Wednesday, an ICE spokesman told TheDC that ICE officers decided not to issue a detainer for Mejia last month “based on the totality of circumstances involved” in Mejia’s case.
“All decisions made by ICE officers — regarding apprehension, detention, bond or release — are made on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman also said that ICE’s guidance on detainers and immigration enforcement priorities “provides ICE with flexibility in its immigration enforcement activities, including for cases where a senior field manager determines that the removal of an alien, who does not fit within an enumerated priority category, would serve an important federal interest.”
“Further review of the case may have resulted in the conclusion that, because of the seriousness of the vehicle crash, Mr. Mejia’s case rose to the level of an important federal interest,” the spokesman added.
Senior ICE officials have brought the case to the attention of ICE field leaders to “reaffirm that appropriate consideration must be given to all cases which may meet an important federal interest.”
Saldana has also failed to meet a pledge she made under oath during that Senate hearing to respond to Sasse’s questions by last Friday.
“I think we will get your reply within a couple of weeks if that’s satisfactory. And if you need it sooner, I’ll certainly work to try to get that,” Saldana said.
“Can we have it by the end of next week?” asked Sasse, a Republican.
“Yes, you can,” she said.
Sasse’s office has yet to receive the document.