July 21, 2015
WASHINGTON — Grant Ronnebeck was a 21-year-old Mesa, Ariz., convenience store clerk trying to help a customer who wanted to buy cigarettes.
Kate Steinle, 32, was walking along a San Francisco pier, arm-in-arm with her father.
Josh Wilkerson, 18, was giving a classmate a ride home after school in Pearland, Texas.
Those three and two other people were killed by illegal immigrants, their family members told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in emotional testimony Tuesday. Their accused killers had already been convicted of a crime when they committed the murders but were free pending deportation.
Between 2010 and 2014, 121 undocumented immigrants who committed crimes were released while awaiting deportation and were later charged with homicide, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Miscommunication, refusal by some local police departments to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and a failure to enforce existing laws were among problems cited as contributing to these deaths.
Judiciary Committee members said they have introduced or plan to introduce legislation to remedy the problem by imposing stiffer penalties on people who re-enter the country after being deported or by taking federal funds away from cities that refuse to cooperate.
The family members who testified Tuesday were united by grief and a desire that the deaths of their loved ones have some meaning.
"He was a friendly, outgoing, loveable guy," Grant Ronnebeck's uncle, Michael Ronnebeck, testified.
Apolinar Altamirano, accused of shooting Ronnebeck in the face in January, was in the country illegally.
He had pleaded guilty to felony burglary in an August 2012 incident in which a Mesa woman said she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Altamirano was sentenced to two years probation and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After an immigration hearing, he posted $10,000 bond and was released.
"We want Grant's death to be a force for change," Michael Ronnebeck said.
Republican Sen. John McCain and Rep. Matt Salmon, both from Arizona, have introduced companion bills dubbed "Grant's law" that would require Homeland Security officials to detain undocumented immigrants arrested or convicted of serious crimes and deport them within 90 days.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, accused of shooting Steinle earlier this month, had been deported five times. Federal immigration officials had asked that they be notified if he was going to be released but they never were because of San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy.
Jim Steinle, her father, testified that her last words to him as she fell were, "Help me, Dad."
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that from January to September of 2014, a total 8,811 federal detention requests were declined by local officials in 43 states.
Of those, more than 5,000 involved people who previously had been charged with or convicted of a crime or presented some other public safety concern. And 1,900 were arrested for another crime after being released.
Grassley said he was introducing legislation Tuesday that would withhold Homeland Security Department and Justice Department funding from law enforcement agencies that don't cooperate with the federal government.
The bill also calls for a minimum five-year sentence for people who enter the U.S. illegally after being deported.
The House is expected to vote on a similar bill later this week.
Montgomery County, (Md.) Police Chief Thomas Manger, testifying on behalf of the Major Cities Chief Association, cautioned against punishing local law enforcement agencies for how they deal with immigration matters.
And the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of a New York City church, said involving local police in enforcing immigration laws will make illegal immigrants less likely to cooperate because they fear deportation.
But Laura Wilkerson, mother of Joshua, offered little sympathy for immigrants during her testimony, which included reading portions of the autopsy that described her son's injuries.
"This is our family's 9/11 terrorist attack," she said. "You are either for Americans or you are not."
"I don't want sympathy. I want you to do something," she concluded to applause from some in the audience.