Local News

Hit-and-Run Deaths Prompt Questions on Dealing With Illegal Immigration

Posted March 7, 2007 5:25 p.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2007 8:50 p.m. EST

— Jerry Braswell and his 9-year-old son, Jerry Braswell Jr., were driving to their Johnston County home Sunday night when, authorities said, a man ran a stop sign, cut them off and left the scene.

The truck in which the father and son were traveling caught fire; they died.

Nearly a day later, investigators arrested Luciano Tellez, 31, of Angier, and charged him with involuntary manslaughter, two counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle, felony hit-and-run, running a stop sign and driving with a suspended license.

Two people who were in the car with Tellez told authorities that he had been drinking. Authorities say Tellez is an illegal immigrant who was convicted in 2005 in Wake County on a prior DWI conviction.

Some say the case is a prime example of proposed legislation that U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-Mecklenburg, intends to bring back before Congress. The Scott Gardner Act would require that illegal immigrants be automatically deported if they are convicted of drunken driving.

Some local law-enforcement officials say, however, that they cannot—and sometimes will not—hold a person until federal immigration officials can become involved.

One reason, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says, is that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are swamped, handling about 800,000 cases referred from local agencies across the nation last year.

In the Wake County Jail, last year, there were at least 900 suspected illegal immigrants, Harrison said. Most of them, he said, served their time and were released before deputies knew their immigration status.

Under the current system, someone who is arrested is fingerprinted and booked. If authorities suspect that person is an illegal immigrant, officers send information to ICE to run through a national database.

Harrison said that if his deputies had access to the database, they could track illegal immigrants faster.

"We can suspect they're illegal, but we don't have the tools to tell us they're illegal," Harrison said. "We have to go to ICE, and ICE says, 'I'm too busy.' They are. We understand that."

"I'm told that it could be done very easily," he added. "It's just a matter of turf, so to speak. I hate to say that, but I think that's what it is."

A program that Myrick helped launch in Mecklenburg County trains deputies to access the federal database and to speed up the deportation process.

Since starting last May, they have identified 1,500 illegal immigrants who will be deported because they committed crimes. Of those, 318 had been arrested on charges of driving while impaired.

Harrison said the Mecklenburg program works, but it is not the answer. He said county taxpayers should not have to pay for what he considers to be a federal job.

"We've got a problem, and if we don't address it now—look how much it's escalated in the last few years," he said. "What do you think it's going to continue to do?"