Last month, Rafael Sanchez-Alvarado was serving a 180-day sentence in the Salt Lake County Jail for driving while under the influence.
This month, the 36-year-old Mexican national began serving a 10-year term in federal prison.What took him from the "rest stop" to "hard time" was a special team of federal agents and prosecutors who've been quietly culling dangerous felons from among the illegal immigrants in Utah's jails and prisons.
While scouring the prisoner rolls, the federal investigators came across Sanchez-Alvarado, whose rap sheet included convictions in California for possession of stolen property, battery on a police officer, DUI, resisting arrest, hit-and-run resulting in a death, and manslaughter; in Arizona for illegal re-entry into the United States; and in Utah for DUI and reckless driving.
Then the prosecutors took over, charging Sanchez-Alvarado in federal court with aggravated felon re-entry. A man who would have normally served out a minimal jail sentence, been deported and then probably very soon found his way back to the United States, ended up looking at a decade behind bars.
Sanchez-Alvarado is only one of 484 illegal immigrants who have been indicted in the past two years under the Utah Federal Immigration Prosecution Project. Almost all of the indictments have resulted in convictions and an average prison sentence of five years.
The project has been a resounding success, U.S. Attorney David Schwendiman said during a recent ceremony honoring the Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and assistant U.S. attorneys who have headed the effort.
So far this year, the team has obtained 201 indictments against felon illegal immigrants - more than in all of 1997 - and is on track to hit 400, Schwendiman said. Last week alone, a federal grand jury handed up 10 indictments.
Paul Warner, who was confirmed Friday as the U.S. attorney for Utah, said the project doesn't target the typical undocumented worker but rather illegal immigrants engaged in "the worst of the worst" criminal activity.
Most of the criminal illegal immigrants are tracked down in the Salt Lake County Jail or Utah State Prison, where they may be serving minimal sentences under assumed names or awaiting deportation.
Wayne M. Kirkpatrick, INS supervisory special agent, said agents are able to discover the true identities of the illegal immigrants through a comparison of fingerprints on record with the INS and other extensive federal investigatory resources.
The project grew out of Sen. Orrin Hatch's 1997 "crime summit," which identified drug trafficking and other serious crimes by illegal immigrants as a major law enforcement problem in Utah.
After the summit, the Department of Justice gave the state three additional prosecutors for special assignment to the Immigration Prosecution Project. The INS weighed in with additional agents.
"We are committed to solving the problem in Utah, but it will only be solved with a communitywide effort," Schwendiman said.
While stressing that the project doesn't single out one nationality, Schwendiman conceded that almost all of the indictments have been against Mexican nationals. In testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee earlier this week, Schwendiman said his office is sensitive to concerns that legal immigrants could be harassed or mistakenly caught up in the prosecution effort.
"I understand the suspicion and fear that follow any concentrated effort to address immigration problems, especially when it involves identifying and prosecuting those suspected of being in the United States illegally," Schwendiman said in written testimony.
However, he said the project is carefully focused on the criminal element. For example, he cited the case of a Mexican national who was deported five times before the project caught up with him in Utah. His rap sheet showed convictions in Oregon, Washington, California and Texas for rape, drug trafficking, theft, assault, resisting arrest and other crimes. Caught by the INS in Ogden, the man was prosecuted under the new program and sentenced to 77 months in prison.
In another case, investigators found an illegal immigrant who was serving an 80-day jail sentence in Salt Lake County for a drug offense. Deported several times only to return and resume his drug trafficking, the man has now been put away for at least seven years, Schwendiman said.
Because of the project, there are 484 fewer dangerous felons on the loose in the West, he said. And the word is apparently getting around. According to Schwendiman, suspects in other states have told agents they've stayed out of Utah because it's become common knowledge that an arrest there could lead to long federal prison terms.
But those suspects have also told agents that the word on the street is that the project is too intensive to last very long. "We need to prove them wrong," Schwendiman said, calling for an extension and expansion of the commitment of federal resources.
During a ceremony last week, Schwendiman praised the efforts of the assistant U.S. attorneys who have developed the project: Mark Vincent, Elise Becker, Henri Sisneros and Michele Mladejovsky.
He also presented certificates to the INS contributors, including: Kirkpatrick; Meryl E. Rogers, officer in charge; Betty E. Masarone and Lema Brown, investigative assistants; Creighton M. West, senior special agent; George Scott, immigration agent; and special agents Edward A. Tolbert, Gary E. Slaybough, Kimberly L. Kitts, Jeffrey S. Hoover, Phillip M. Earnest, Sidney S. Cluff and Mark J. Acton.