3-year-old incident in Texas remains a hot immigration issue
FABENS, Texas — With its pecan groves and dusty cotton fields, the calm surrounding this stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border belies its role in one of the country’s fiercest immigration dramas, one that has led to congressional hearings, impassioned protests and outrage from conservative media.
It all began three years ago, when U.S. Border Patrol agents Ignacio “Nacho” Ramos and Jose Compean chased a van driven by Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, a Mexican national. Davila ditched the van about 100 yards from the border and sprinted across the Rio Grande toward Mexico, but not before Compean fired his gun at him and missed, and Ramos hit Davila with a single shot that sliced his buttocks and urethra.
As Davila disappeared across the border, agents found nearly 800 pounds of marijuana in the van he was driving.
On other points, the narrative diverges: Ramos and Compean say they fired their weapons only because they believed Davila had flashed a gun at them, and they insist they informed their supervisor about the shooting.
Other agents disputed this claim during a federal trial, saying Ramos and Compean shot an unarmed man from behind, tried to cover it up and failed to report it properly. A jury in El Paso convicted the two agents of assault, obstruction of justice and civil rights violations, and each received lengthy federal prison sentences: 11 years for Ramos, 12 for Compean.
Even before the trial began, conservative media took up the cause, portraying Ramos and Compean as martyrs to an immigration policy out of control. Ann Coulter wrote about the incident, and talk radio has filled hours with the subject. CNN’s Lou Dobbs has featured the story, calling the agents’ imprisonment an “outrage” and “warrantless.”
And as can be expected in a presidential campaign season in which immigration is a hotly discussed issue, several candidates have weighed in.
Mitt Romney, who issued no pardons as governor of Massachusetts, told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham that “if there is prosecutorial indiscretion” in this case—and he suspects there is—”these cases deserve a very careful look and potentially a pardon.”
At a “Meet Mike Huckabee” event last month in Iowa, the former Arkansas governor said, “Of course I would review their case,” adding that he hoped the agents would be back home by Valentine’s Day 2009, just after a new president takes office.
Republican Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California, both presidential candidates until recently, have each introduced legislation either asking President Bush to pardon the men or proposing a congressional pardon, which would be unprecedented.
Bush has so far declined to pardon Ramos and Compean, with spokeswoman Dana Perino noting that the men’s case is on appeal. Neither has applied for a pardon, which requires admitting guilt.
“He will not sign that paperwork,” said Monica Ramos, Ignacio’s wife. “He’s not going to beg for a pardon.”
Democrats, too, have gotten in on the debate.
Last summer, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California held hearings on the case, saying the agents’ sentences were too harsh and their case should be reviewed. Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts recently introduced a resolution in the House calling on Bush to commute the agents’ sentences to time served. The bill has bipartisan support with 75 co-sponsors.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have not commented on the case.
Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted, said that Ramos and Compean are far from heroes and that the conservative media gloss over many of the facts, forgetting that a jury unanimously convicted them.
“They shot 15 times at an unarmed man who was running away from them and posed no threat,” Sutton said in a statement. “They lied about what happened, covered up the shooting, conspired to destroy evidence and then proceeded to write up and file a false report.”
$5 million claim
Davila, the man who was shot, got immunity for the drugs in his van in exchange for testifying against the agents, but he is now in a west Texas jail on unrelated smuggling charges. He has pleaded not guilty and has filed a $5 million claim against the Border Patrol for violating his civil rights in the shooting.
In a recent visit to the site of the shooting—a dusty, desolate patch just outside Fabens, population 8,000—Joe Loya, Ramos’ father-in-law, kicked the dirt and disagreed with Sutton’s characterization.
“It’s nothing but lies, lies, lies,” Loya said. “This place makes me so angry.”
In the distance, four Border Patrol agents watched Loya from their trucks with binoculars as they scanned the border about 100 yards away.
“Supervisors don’t like to see us out here,” he said, staring back at the men. “Too bad.”