How easily can criminals sneak into US?

Rail-riding murder suspect is in custody, ending manhunt. But immigration agencies are under fire for failure to spot him sooner.

The search for Rafael Resendez-Ramirez jolted the American public - and not just because of the nine murders in which he is a suspect.

Behind it all was a growing concern that if one man could evade the law for months - being captured and released by the US Border Patrol nine times since January 1998 - many other criminal illegal immigrants could be doing it, too.

The sheer number of illegal immigrants - and legal tourists - that cross the border makes it difficult to keep criminal records on each individual. And although the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has a database that keeps tabs on about 400,000 criminal aliens, officials acknowledge that they don't know the scope of the problem - one of the most vexing in American immigration policy.

As a result, pundits and politicians are calling for the INS and Border Patrol to find a way to better track criminals who try to slip across the US border.

"Resendez-Ramirez may be back in custody, but questions about his case remain unanswered," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, in a statement. "How many other convicted and accused felons have slipped through the INS's hands because they can't identify criminals with their computers?"

Immigration experts say it's virtually impossible now to draw any generalizations about how many illegal immigrants have a criminal record. "Whether [the Resendez case] is representative of a larger problem is hard to know, because we don't have good information of who's entering the US, who's trying to enter, and who we should be stopping," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

What is known is that the Border Patrol, which is run by the INS, captures some 1.5 million illegal immigrants each year - nearly twice the number of foreigners who are legally allowed to immigrate to the US. Clouding the picture somewhat are the estimated 25 million legal tourists, students, and businesspeople who visit the US in a given year, some of whom may overstay their visa.

"These are huge numbers," says Jeff Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington, "and the notion that one or two horrible people will slip through is not surprising."

Political observers like Mr. Krikorian are also quick to note that the majority of immigrants are law-abiding. Studies have shown that immigrants are slightly less likely than the general population to commit a crime. Yet the Resendez case may have already made a mark on people's minds about immigrants in general, and Latinos in particular.

"There's a certain racism that surfaces in events like this," says Luiz Plascencia, associate director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. "Suddenly every Mexican of a certain color and height becomes Resendez-Ramirez. Hey, they all look alike."

Even so, some critics say the INS needs to do a better job of keeping track of illegal immigrants. In an October 1998 report by the General Accounting Office, investigators found that nearly 36 percent of the 19,639 foreign-born inmates released from federal and state prisons in 1997 had no past records with the INS. This meant that the INS couldn't determine how many of those prisoners were eligible for deportation after their sentences ended.

In the case of Resendez, whose real name is Angel Maturino Resendez, Justice Department officials had called the INS last spring to warn them that Resendez might attempt to cross the Texas border. Somehow, this information did not reach the Border Patrol agents, who captured, fingerprinted, photographed, and released Resendez near El Paso on June 2. Within weeks, US authorities allege, Resendez committed four additional murders.

One source of controversy is the IDENT computer system used by the INS. It is not compatible with databases run by the FBI and other agencies. But INS officials counter that the system does keep track of some 400,000 criminal aliens, and that in the past three years, nearly 80,000 of these have been identified for future prosecution.

Why was Resendez not one of them? "At this point, to be perfectly honest, we don't really know what happened," says Maria Cardona, an INS spokeswoman in Washington, adding that the case is being investigated.

Critics in Congress, however, are hinting that they might launch their own investigation. Allen Kay, a spokesman for Congressman Smith, says the blame rests largely on the shoulders of the Clinton administration for authorizing a computer system that "doesn't work."

"For $37 million, we got a gun-check system that gives a background check in under two minutes," says Mr. Kay. "But when it comes to illegal aliens, and checking whether they have criminal backgrounds, this administration doesn't get the job done."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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