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Killings By Mexican National Exposes Holes In Border Security


Funerals were held this week in California for two Sacramento area deputy sheriffs who were killed in the line of duty. The suspect in the killings has an extensive criminal record, is in the United States illegally and has twice been deported. The murders raise a host of questions about the immigration system and border security. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At the time of his arrest, the man accused of killing two sheriff's deputies in Sacramento and Placer Counties said his name was Marcelo Marquez. He's charged with a total of 14 offenses, including the wounding of a third deputy and shooting a civilian motorist in a botched carjacking. But at his arraignment last week, a judge asked Marquez for his true and correct name.





GONZALES: Through an interpreter, the 34-year-old suspect said his real name is Luis Enrique Monroy Bracamontes. According to federal records, Bracamontes was convicted on a felony drug charge in Arizona in 1997 and deported back to his native Mexico.

But that was just the beginning of a complicated story that raises questions about border security, the arrest process and cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. That story begins in Arizona. Bracamontes was arrested four times in that state between 1996 and 2001, according to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He's long been an outspoken critic of the government's immigration policies, and he questions whether the feds deported Bracamontes after each Arizona arrest.

JOE ARPAIO: I don't know how many times he was arrested and slipped through the cracks. It's my gut feeling it wasn't just two times he's been deported.

GONZALES: Regardless of the number of times he was deported, Bracamontes continued to find his way into the United States and into trouble. Critics point to repeated contacts with police, this time in Utah.

Ira Mehlman is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a group advocating tighter immigration restrictions. His group has been following Bracamontes' case.

IRA MEHLMAN: He had been stopped at least 10 times for traffic offenses. And nobody ever bothered to check to see who he was, if there were any outstanding warrants.

GONZALES: Those 10 traffic offenses occurred in Utah between 2003 and 2009. Bracamontes was arrested for a misdemeanor hit-and-run in 2003 and fingerprinted. But police never checked the print against a federal database because it was a misdemeanor. The state changed that policy in 2010 when it joined the federal program called Secure Communities. Under that program, fingerprints of those arrested are routinely checked against immigration records. Ira Mehlman says the case points to a broken immigration system.

MEHLMAN: It tells us that there is failure at every level of government to enforce our immigration laws in the interest and in the safety of the American people.

KEVIN JOHNSON: It's hard to say this is a problem of the failed immigration enforcement policies.

GONZALES: Kevin Johnson is an immigration law expert and dean of the UC Davis School of Law. He says every time Bracamontes was in the hands of federal immigration officials, he was deported. The system worked, he says.

JOHNSON: It's a tragic event that's really an exception as opposed to the rule. And people who are trying to capitalize on it for their own political ends should be ashamed of themselves.

GONZALES: The case of Monroy Bracamontes couldn't come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Immigration reform is stalled in Congress, and the administration had planned to announce some immigration policy changes under executive order. But after this week's election and Republican victories in both the House and Senate, it's not clear what the next steps will be.

Back in California, investigators are still trying to piece together Bracamontes' history. And they are avoiding any talk about his immigration status. Here's Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully.

JAN SCULLY: At the beginning of a case, especially one such as this, the publicity is high. So it really would be inappropriate for us to comment on it.

GONZALES: Prosecutors aren't saying yet whether they will seek the death penalty. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.