Local News

Immigration Issues, Language Barriers Can Impede Investigations

Posted October 4, 2006
Updated March 5, 2007

— An Amber Alert remains in effect for a 2-year-old boy who authorities said was taken at gunpoint by his father from his home on Sunday morning.

Investigators said five men, including the child's father, Jorge Aguilera, broke into the child's home, restrained three family members with duct tape and threatened to kill them if they did not turn over Edwin Gonzales.

On Monday, Chatham County deputies tracked down and arrested two men in connection with the case, but they said others, including the father, remain on the run.

Investigators said they believe the men they want could be in North Carolina or as far away as Mexico.

The case raises questions about immigration issues and law enforcement's abilities to track and identify illegal immigrants. Agents believe one suspect detained in the kidnapping case is in the United States illegally.

The immigration status of others in the case, including Aguilera, is unclear.

"The problem is, we often don't know," said Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall, whose office prosecutes nearly 40,000 cases each year in Chatham and Orange counties.

In most cases, Woodall said, law enforcement officers do not know a defendant's immigration status. On any given day in central North Carolina, about 50 to 120 people in custody are suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

"It's time, it's resources -- it's the inability to work through all the layers you have to work through," Woodall said.

Law enforcement officials can access a national database maintained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that quickly supplies information on nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants.

And local officers are working more closely with immigration agents than ever before, but determining a defendant's immigration status is more complicated.

"Aliens and criminals tend to lie about their identity so they can hide from law enforcement," said agent Tom O'Connell, who runs the ICE office in Cary.

That means the information from the database is only as good as the information given to the officer.

The process of determining who is in the U.S. legally can get even lengthier, and typically, ICE agents do not declare a person an illegal immigrant until they have had an opportunity to meet with the individual.

"They've got to come here, interview the person," Woodall said. "They've got to get more information to make the determination because, oftentimes, identity is a big issue."

Another issue facing law enforcement officers is the language barrier that exists.

For example, in the case of 2-year-old Gonzales, although Chatham County authorities have interpreters working with the boy's Spanish-speaking mother and others involved in the case, they fear that they are not getting all the information they need.

"From drug cases to violent crimes, we're running into this problem every day," said Tex Lindsey with the U.S. Marshal Violent Fugitive Task Force.

One bilingual officer is assigned to the task force's regional district, which runs from Raleigh to the coast and covers 44 counties from South Carolina to Virginia. One officer, Lindsey said, is not enough.

Day-to-day tasks, such as serving warrants and court summonses, also present challenges for law enforcement.

"We're constantly looking to get officers from other departments who are bilingual for our task force," Lindsey said.

Most departments are competing for a limited pool of applicants to fill the void. Some departments call in a part-time interpreter for bilingual work, typically costing $25 to $30 an hour.


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all