job displacement   community turmoil   importing criminals

small businesses   crime victims   background    about ihc

archives thru 2008     home

'Sanctuary' policy irks some in HPD
Accused killer helped by 'hands-off' proviso

By PEGGY O'HARE, March 7, 2003, Houston Chronicle

In the months before three East End women were abducted, raped and slain last year, one of the accused killers, Walter Alexander Sorto, 25, was ticketed by Houston police several times for traffic violations.

Sorto was an illegal immigrant, having somehow managed to circumvent the usual ports of entry into this country, just like his accused companion in crime, Edgardo Rafael Cubas, 24. They remained below radar, undetected by immigration authorities until they were arrested for capital murder.

But had they crossed paths with Houston police before the violence — as Sorto apparently did — officers here might have been hamstrung anyway, barred by city rules from asking about their immigration status or reporting them to federal authorities.

Critics refer to this rule as a "sanctuary" policy. And Sorto is a pointed example of what frustrates some Houston police officers about the "hands-off" provision toward illegal immigrants.

Some of Sorto's traffic tickets for driver's license violations and not having insurance came months before the killings that terrorized the East End community, municipal court records show.

And he was charged, but never arrested, for failure to appear just days before 13-year-old Laura Ayala was abducted from outside her southeast Houston apartment. Blood evidence recently linked Ayala's disappearance to Sorto and two companions accused in the East End slayings, though they have not been charged.

The Houston Police Department's controversial policy, in place for almost 11 years, forbids police from asking about someone's citizenship status and prohibits them from detaining or arresting people solely on the belief they are in the country illegally.

Officers may contact federal authorities only if someone is arrested on a criminal charge more serious than a Class C misdemeanor — such as traffic violations — and the officer knows the prisoner is in the country illegally.

Though many major cities across the country have similar policies — including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego — some rank-and-file officers have a problem with such restrictions.

"Within many of these entities that are turning a blind eye, that are choosing to ignore immigration law, we find there's a lot of people within the organization who don't agree or are uncomfortable with the policy," said Craig Nelsen, director of Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, a Washington watchdog group.

Houston police officer John Nickell is one of them. He complained about Houston's policy when he testified last week before a House Judiciary subcommittee during a hearing spurred by the rape of a New York woman in a Queens park last December.

Four of five men charged in that attack were in the country illegally. Three of them had been arrested by the New York Police Department before, but were later released instead of being turned over to federal authorities. The woman who was raped has now filed a lawsuit.

"When we shackle law enforcement officers in such a manner — instead of protecting U.S. citizens and people who are here legally — the danger to society greatly increases by allowing potential violent criminals to freely roam our cities," Nickell said.

Supporters of the policy say such provisions are necessary for the police to keep good relations with the immigrant community. Houston and New York police officials adamantly deny having any "sanctuary" policy for illegal immigrants.

But Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement says HPD's policy violates federal law and could expose the city to civil liability. They are calling for the mayor to rescind the policy and have issued a similar notice to New York City officials.

The group also pledges to help those who have been victimized by crime because of a city's failure to enforce immigration laws.

Critics says it's just a matter of time until a similar incident happens here in Houston.

"I'm sure it has happened. We just haven't heard about it yet," Nelsen said.

"When that happens, we'll help the victims bring suit against the city of Houston for knowing (about) and, by policy, contributing to a dangerous situation," he said Friday.

"As long as America is either not serious about immigration policy, or allows special interests to dictate immediate policy, we're going to eventually, like it our not, end up in the same boat China or India is in. It's simply not fair to do that to the next generation," Nelsen said.

But Police Chief C.O. Bradford said Houston's policy is sound.

"The Houston Police Department policy has been in effect since 1992. It is our belief that our policy is in compliance with the law," said spokesman John Leggio, speaking on the chief's behalf.

Nickell has requested a legal opinion on the validity of HPD's policy from the city attorney, Harris County attorney and the U.S. Attorney General's Office in Houston.

"These types of policies, I just think they're dangerous to have in place," said Nickell, a Houston police officer for 11 years.

Nickell said he has received positive support from his fellow officers since he spoke out on the policy, adding, "They all deal with it on a daily basis."