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Losing Track

In December 1992, a 15-year-old named Alfredo was charged by Harris County authorities with kidnapping after being accused of threatening a man named Ruben Gonzales with a screwdriver to rob him of $500. After Alfredo pleaded guilty to charges of felony kidnapping and theft, his juvenile probation officer recommended to the court that the teen be released to an aunt in Muleshoe, Texas. The court agreed, and sent him away to family rather than to jail.

The case of Alfredo was no different from most other juvenile cases that pass through Harris County, with one exception -- Alfredo was a native of Cuauhtemoc in Chihuahua, Mexico, and in the United States illegally. Despite this, he was not reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service by the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. Instead, says his lawyer, Brian Quintero, it was left up to Alfredo's aunt to see that he was returned home.

Quintero agrees that, from a defense standpoint, his client walked away scot-free. And to this day, he doesn't know if the boy ever made it back to Mexico. Neither does the INS. And since the juvenile was supposed to be sent across the border, and out of U.S. jurisdiction, the probation department doesn't know where he is, either. As a result, it's quite possible that he's returned to Houston, and returned to the ways that first got him into trouble.

This problem of juveniles who are illegal in both senses of the word -- undocumented aliens and accused of criminal acts -- slipping through the cracks of the system because they're never reported to the INS has, according to various sources within the juvenile probation department, accelerated since Teresa Ramirez took over as director of the department in March 1992. Her predecessor, John Cocoros, says he had a good rapport with the INS. "Someone on our staff was working with Immigration," he says, adding that his policy, as set by the juvenile board, was to contact INS immediately when children who were brought in for committing delinquent acts were suspected of being undocumented aliens.

Now, though, that is apparently not the case. According to INS Supervisor of Detention and Deportation Leo De La Torre, no juvenile offenders have been processed through his division since shortly after Ramirez took over at juvenile probation. And according to former juvenile detention employee Richard Butler, soon after Ramirez became probation head, she ordered her deputy chief probation officers and intake workers to stop contacting INS when a juvenile's citizenship status was questionable. "She told them [intake officials] off-the-record that they couldn't report these illegal aliens to Immigration," Butler says. "She wouldn't put it in writing."

Though Butler was fired in April -- because, he says, he had filed grievances that embarrassed Ramirez, or because, the probation department originally alleged, he left his post during a crisis situation -- his story is backed up by five current employees of the probation department, all of whom insisted on remaining anonymous to protect their jobs. One of the current employees says that Ramirez justified her actions by contending that contacting Immigration "violated [the juveniles'] civil rights." Despite numerous requests for a response, Ramirez -- who has been under fire in recent months because of problems with boot-camp escapees and her handling of overcrowding at the juvenile detention center -- has declined to comment on the accusations against her. She has also, according to probation department employees, threatened to fire anyone who talks to the media without her approval.

However, Ramirez's second-in-command, Jo Ann Jones, insisted that reports to INS were "a matter of procedure." Told later that the INS had no record that the procedure has been carried out in recent years, probation department spokesperson Carole Allen amended Jones' comment, saying that before detention workers could call INS on suspected undocumented alien youths, they had to give the juvenile the opportunity to prove his citizenship. "We're not equipped to investigate and challenge anybody's paper," Allen added, "so why call [Immigration]?"

According to the INS, one possible reason to call Immigration is that that's what the law requires. If it's suspected that arrested juveniles are undocumented aliens -- a judgment made, according to probation intake workers, in a variety of ways, from the juvenile having no parent or guardian to contact; to having no Social Security card or driver's license or other identification; to simply telling police that he or she is from another country -- then it's the INS's job to determine if they're actually in the United States illegally and subject to deportation.

But INS investigators can't look into cases they never hear about. Presently, three possibly undocumented alien youths -- one from Matamoros and two whose origins have yet to be determined -- are serving time at the county's Burnett-Bayland Home. The INS has not been told about them. And recently, a 17-year-old suspected illegal immigrant whose mother resides in Honduras escaped from the Harris County Youth Village after spending nine months there. The INS was never informed that the youth was in custody.

Rather than contact the INS, juvenile probation under Ramirez has apparently decided to turn instead to Casa Juan Diego, a shelter that serves immigrant youths, among others. "The probation department saw us as a way to serve young people simply. We can take them without a lot of complication," Casa Juan Diego founder Mark Zwick says. "[Probation] decided not to deport them so much."

Zwick says that he began accepting accused juvenile offenders regularly from the juvenile detention center after Ramirez took over as probation director. And according to probation spokesperson Allen, 41 suspected illegal immigrant youths have been released to the shelter since February of last year.

However, as Zwick notes, Casa Juan Diego is "not a locked facility. People can come and go as they wish." The result is that sometimes suspects do just that. Assistant district attorney Karen McAshan is still trying to locate a 17-year-old Mexican national who slipped out of the hands of probation officials. The youth failed to show up for court three times for his suspected involvement in the robbery of a Yellow Cab driver on February 17. On February 23, detention officials released him to Casa Juan Diego. From there he ended up at a drug rehab facility, but when police tried to serve him with a subpoena, he was nowhere to be found. "Probation is supposed to know how to get in touch with them," a frustrated McAshan says.

In recent months, McAshan adds, she has noted greater numbers of suspected undocumented children on the court dockets -- released to supposedly responsible adults or Casa Juan Diego -- who do not receive their court summons because constables cannot locate them.

Of course, suspected undocumented aliens are not the only ones who fail to show up for court. But their very lack of a legal connection to the city or the state can make tracking them down doubly difficult. Too, their illegal status can easily make them less interested in appearing before a judge.

County Commissioners El Franco Lee and Steve Radack weren't pleased to learn that INS is being kept in the dark about suspected undocumented alien offenders. Lee suggests the Ramirez' department should establish "communication and a better relationship" with Immigration authorities. Radack's reaction was a bit more urgent. "I think INS should know exactly what's going on," he says. "It's not correct to withhold information from other law enforcement agencies."

"I think it's a slap at the law-abiding public," Radack adds. "It's a totally unacceptable practice that has obviously been done in a way that no one found out. It only leads to more questions over there."

Emilio Saenz, local INS director for detention and deportation, did say, however, that due to limited federal funds, he's not sure that, since that juvenile would already be in detention, an undocumented juvenile facing prison time would necessarily be deported, even if the probation department reported him. "It's a tough, tough situation," Saenz says.

Still, when asked if convicted juveniles should be reported to the INS, Saenz answers, "Yes ... if these kids have been convicted of a crime, we should be notified.


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