Immigration Redux

Case of imprisoned Border Control agents returns issue to forefront.

Judging from the results of the November 2006 election, the politics of immigration policy turned out to be a bust. But just when it appeared the issue had lost its political salience, the controversial case of two imprisoned Border Patrol agents is reminding Washington of its volatility.

Nearly every aspect of the case is disputed, but this much is true. On Feb. 17, 2005, Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean pursued a suspicious van traveling near the Texas-Mexico border. The driver, later identified as an undocumented immigrant named Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, ditched the van and was shot once in the buttocks before he fled on foot into Mexico. The vehicle contained 743 pounds of marijuana.

After an investigation by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for Western Texas, prosecuted the agents for shooting the unarmed man and attempting to cover it up. Federal prosecutors, who gave Aldrete-Davila immunity in exchange for his testimony, said Ramos and Compean were rogue officers. The agents contended there was reason to believe the man was armed.

In March 2006, a jury found the agents guilty. Ramos was sentenced to 11 years in prison and Compean got a 12-year term. Their sentences started in January. That, however, is just the beginning. The harsh sentences, the immunity deal given to an alleged drug-trafficker and subsequent revelations that several jurors felt pressured into delivering a guilty verdict have fueled a burgeoning grass-roots campaign to pardon the agents-complicating the Bush administration's ability to craft comprehensive immigration reform.

To conservatives, who already view the White House as soft on illegal immigration, the case represents not only a terrible miscarriage of justice but also an example of the administration's refusal to support front-line agents.

As such, more than a few in the GOP have been willing to press the issue. Republican Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo of Colorado, the leading congressional advocate for stricter immigration policy, sponsored a bill in January calling for an unconditional presidential pardon. Another House conservative, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, warned there would be talk of impeachment if either of the agents were killed in prison.

If it were just a matter of a few congressmen chasing headlines, the White House could easily ignore the furor. But last month, 45 House members signed a letter to congressional leaders requesting immediate hearings "into all aspects of the Ramos and Compean case."

Since many of those members are immigration hard-liners already at odds with the administration, their concerns might not ordinarily carry much weight. But the American Federation of Government Employees also supports a presidential pardon. And 90 members of Congress-a figure that includes a handful of Democrats-have co-sponsored a measure that calls for a congressional pardon and a review of the Border Patrol rules of engagement.

All this places the White House in an awkward position. If the administration pardons the agents, it undercuts U.S. attorney Sutton-a former Bush-Cheney transition team lawyer who served as criminal justice policy director to then-Gov. George Bush in Texas. It also would provide comfort to some of the administration's toughest immigration policy critics and shed more light on the lawlessness of the border region.

Denying a pardon would have equally meaningful consequences. At a time when the president needs all the allies he can get, he would risk alienating his conservative base-and likely jeopardize his chances of winning enough Republican votes to ensure passage of immigration law reform.

Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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