WASHINGTON—After illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border near Laredo, Texas, almost six years ago, Juan Carlos Almanza-Castillo made his way north, eventually landing a job as a ranch hand in Central Texas, about 50 miles up Interstate 35 from Austin.
He lived a simple lifestyle, under the radar of the law, until Bell County authorities began investigating him this year for an alleged sexual assault on a minor. The investigation turned up another detail: Almanza-Castillo was a former Mexican police officer wanted in the slaying of a relative in northern Mexico.
The fugitive, who was deported this month, is part of what U.S. authorities say is a menacing subset of the nearly 11 million immigrants who have entered the United States in the past two decades.
Of the 1.2 million illegal immigrants apprehended nationwide while entering the United States over the past year, fingerprint checks revealed that more than 26,000 were linked to major crimes, Border Patrol officials say.
Many of the fugitives had already been convicted and served time while others were being sought on outstanding charges. From Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, border patrol agents arrested eight illegal immigrants charged with homicide, said Mario Villarreal, Washington spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
More than 4.5 million people have been arrested trying to enter the United States illegally since President Bush took office in January 2001. Of that number, 350,000 had criminal records, says the administration.
Top officials from Bush on down say misguided polices have helped immigrant criminals broaden their foothold in U.S. society. Much of the blame falls on a now-discredited “catch-and-release” policy under which apprehended immigrants were often released pending a hearing because of inadequate detention space. Many never showed up for their hearings.
Bush and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff have changed the focus to “catch-and-return” by increasing detention facilities, adding more agents and streamlining deportation procedures. In outlining his immigration initiative in a speech this month in Tucson, Ariz., the president said “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other violent criminals” have slipped through the cracks.
Critics of the catch-and-release policy say it sent a message to troublemakers in foreign countries that they could cheat the system in the United States. “The word on the street is get past the border and you’re home free,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, former chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee.