Elliot Spagat, AP, July 29, 2006
San Diego — Border Patrol Agent Oscar Antonio Ortiz brought a certain inside knowledge to his job policing the U.S.-Mexican frontier: He had come to the United States illegally and was once arrested and accused of trying to drive two illegal immigrants across from Mexico.
But his superiors did not know any of that when he applied for a job with the Border Patrol, because he had a fake birth certificate that said he was from Chicago.
None of that would come out until last August, when, after three years of distinguished service, Ortiz was arrested again and admitted smuggling at least 100 illegal immigrants into the country, sometimes by driving them in his Border Patrol truck.
On Friday, Ortiz, 29, was sentenced to five years in prison in one of a spate of corruption cases involving Border Patrol agents at a time when the agency is on a hiring spree.
Prosecutors had asked for a term of about three years, but U.S. District Judge John A. Houston decided a stiffer punishment was required for Ortiz, who pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens and making a false claim to U.S. citizenship.
“You violated the sacred trust of your comrades,” the judge said. “As a link in the chain, they depended on you.”
Ortiz expressed remorse: “I was blind at the time I made my mistake of smuggling.”
Critics say the corruption cases raise questions about the hiring process at the Border Patrol as it grows from 11,700 agents to 18,000 by the end of 2008 in an effort to tighten the nation’s borders.
So far this year, 25 Customs and Border Protection workers have been arrested on corruption charges. Eight have been convicted. Agency spokesman Todd Fraser said he did not know whether that marked an increase but noted it is a small percentage of the force.
The Border Patrol had found promise in Ortiz. A performance review in 2003 noted his “radiant, confident, poised and courteous demeanor,” Spanish fluency, exceptional grooming, punctuality and writing skills.
Fraser said the agency had believed Ortiz was a U.S. citizen — a job requirement — and that it had been unaware of his smuggling arrest, which took place shortly before he applied to the Border Patrol in October 2001. He was accused of taking $400 to try to smuggle two people across the border, but was never actually charged.