By Tommy Witherspoon / Tribune-Herald staff writer
Next to them, their younger sister, Erica, cried quietly and frequently dabbed at a steady flow of tears.
She, too, seemed stunned.
The siblings, all students at Waco High School with aspirations of going to college, watched as their father was sentenced to 10 months in prison on a felony count of illegally re-entering the United States after being sent back to his native Mexico.
(From left) Pedro, Erica, Cristina and Jose Medina stand in front of their Waco home while holding a picture of their father and husband, who was sentenced to federal prison for illegal re-entry into the U.S.
Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune-Herald
Pedro Medina-Davila, 45, who lived in Waco for 20 years, will be deported again after serving his time, launching his children, who are U.S. citizens, and his wife, who is not, into a future of uncertainty.
Will they try to finish their final years of high school while maintaining their father’s landscape and masonry business to support the family?
Or will they follow their father to his hometown of Zacatecas in north central Mexico, keep the family intact and rejoin their grandfather, an aging goat farmer?
Jose, 18, who was born in Waco, isn’t sure yet. He wants to stay and graduate from high school and go to college. But he also wants his close-knit family to remain together.
It’s a problem faced by an increasing number of families in Central Texas these days.
Medina-Davila was among 16 federal defendants being held for illegal re-entry into the U.S. who were sentenced in the past two weeks in Waco by U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr.
He was convicted of drunken driving in 1998 and sent back to Mexico. He has had a clean record since his return and has been working to build his business and support his family, his attorney, Lewis Giles, said.
Immigration officials picked him up this time based on an anonymous tip, Giles said.
Before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened a Waco office almost two years ago, most illegal immigrants found in Waco with no extensive criminal histories normally were deported and not prosecuted.
Now, with the ICE office up and running, an additional prosecutor added to the Waco U.S. Attorney’s Office to handle immigration cases and shifts in law enforcement strategies that appear to coincide with segments of society demanding illegal-immigrant crackdowns, the federal case load is increasing.
Smith presides as chief judge over the sprawling federal Western District of Texas.
During sentencings last week, Smith, noting the number of illegal re-entry cases on his docket, joked that on days like that, he feels like he should send flowers to his colleagues in El Paso, who certainly handle more immigration- related matters than judges in Waco or Austin.
The six charged with illegal re-entry last week were given sentences ranging from three months to 10 years.
When one defendant, speaking through an interpreter, expressed certain “philosophical differences with U.S. immigration laws and policies,” Smith suggested that he compare “the laws of this country with the laws of your country when considering how illegal immigrants are treated.”
The defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison had five convictions for drunken driving, several for driving with a suspended license and one for burglary of a habitation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Frazier, who heads the Waco federal prosecutors’ office, said while each immigration-related case is handled on an individual basis, most charged with illegal re-entry have “aggravating” felonies on their records or multiple removals and illegal re-entries.
While Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman in San Antonio, declined to divulge the number of employees at the local office, she said it includes a team from a criminal alien program (CAP) and a fugitive operations team, all under the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
She said the CAP agents go to local jails and interview people to determine their immigration status.
“There is 100 percent vetting,” Pruneda said. “No matter what their background, we ask everyone to determine who of those individuals who are booked into county jails are in the country illegally.”
Those in the country illegally are held by ICE and brought before an immigration judge, who determines if they remain or are deported, she said.
If they refuse a judicial order to return to their country, they become fugitives and are sought by the fugitive operations team, she said.
Like some defense attorneys, at least one judge within the Western District of Texas earlier this year questioned the swelling numbers of illegal immigrants on his docket and the wisdom of seeking criminal convictions against many of them.
In an order issued in February in illegal re-entry cases against three Mexican citizens, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, of Austin ,said the practice “presents a cost to the American taxpayer . . . that is neither meritorious nor reasonable.”
Sparks noted that most prosecuted for illegal re-entry have “no significant criminal history,” adding that it cost more than $13,000 to jail the three men. He also said charging them criminally added expenses and work for prosecutors, defense lawyers, court staff and others.
“The expenses of prosecuting illegal entry and re-entry cases on aliens without any significant criminal history is simply mind-boggling,” Sparks wrote.
Waco attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. agrees with Sparks.
“It costs several thousand dollars every time they pick up somebody,” Reaves said. “I think we are wasting an awful lot of money just to deport people or prosecute people who have come here to work and to make a better life for their families.”
Reaves said he had a client who was not a citizen who spent 10 to 15 years serving in the U.S. military. He was deported after a DWI arrest, he said.
“You can serve in the military. It’s all right to get shot for your country, but . . .” Reaves said.
Vik Deivanayagam, a Waco defense lawyer and Lubbock native whose parents immigrated from India, said he thinks local federal prosecutors do a good job of “weeding out the ones who are harmful to our country versus those who are just here working.”
“They really do take it on a case-by-case basis,” Deivanayagam said. “That is how you have to approach them. They all have unique issues, and they all have hard-luck stories. It really is a frustrating issue. Anyone can see both sides. If you are not a native American Indian, you are an immigrant. Our country was founded by immigrants and on the principle of openness. Are we closing our doors now? Is there a better way?”