The murders of people like Mollie Tibbetts are so frustrating because anyone can understand that illegal immigrants can't kill if immigration enforcement is properly administered. These murders also often didn’t generate influential national headline news until the era of Donald Trump, hence the so-called “angel families” who surround the president at public events hoping that, through him, the lives of lost loved ones may be made meaningful in public safety policy.
But those who survived the June 2018 murder of 20-year-old college student Jared Vargas in San Antonio, Texas, have yet to be inducted as angel families or to see any similar national media attention about their loss, as officials in the sanctuary city of San Antonio reportedly asked them not to speak out. Through strictly local media reporting that has gained no traction beyond the Alamo City, some details have emerged about the “homicidal violence” that killed Vargas and the subsequent arrest of an illegally present Mexican national.
The suspect, Ernesto Esquivel-Garcia, also 20 like his alleged victim, had been behind bars for drunken driving (crashing his truck into cars belonging to an ex-girlfriend and one of her family members) and also on an immigration detainer a year earlier. He posted bond granted by an immigration judge, no doubt knowing any resolution involving deportation was a long way off. A few weeks before the murder of Vargas, though, he was briefly behind bars again for violating his probation conditions. But he was released despite those violations. More on these releases in a little bit.
Vargas was a beloved student at Northwest Vista College with a large circle of friends in San Antonio and with plans to study cybersecurity at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Like Tibbetts, he, too, had gone missing. On June 18, two days after he was last seen leaving work, his severely burned body was discovered inside a burning apartment in a complex where his family had tracked his cell phone and found his car. The Bexar County medical examiner listed his cause of death as “homicidal violence”, but did not detail how he was killed. Esquivel-Garcia was on the scene among other bystanders watching firefighters put out the blaze. After police questioned Esquivel-Garcia, they charged him with murder, arson, and abuse of a corpse.
San Antonio Express-News and KSAT television news reporters dug around. The newspaper found that Esquivel-Garcia had worked with his victim at a local restaurant called Bowl and Barrel. How he was able to obtain the documents necessary to work is not known. Esquivel-Garcia apparently had been in the country illegally for about three years. He came to the attention of ICE after a March 1, 2017, arrest on drunken driving and criminal mischief charges in San Antonio. For those, he pleaded down to a lesser charge of obstructing a highway and received deferred adjudication with 12 months’ probation. This legal problem prompted deportation proceedings, but he quickly bonded out in April 2017 while the immigration case sat. It took a federal immigration judge more than a year to adjudicate the case against Esquivel-Garcia. Finally, just weeks before Vargas was murdered, the immigration judge ruled — and granted Esquivel-Garcia the chance to voluntarily leave by July 20, 2018. This so-called “voluntary departure” is a generous kind of resolution that allows respondents to one day legally apply for re-entry.
Local authorities in a city known for opposing a state law requiring cooperation with ICE had had other chances to keep Esquivel-Garcia behind bars until he left, but they did not.
An ICE statement to the local media reported that soon after Esquivel-Garcia learned of his May 21, 2018, voluntary departure order, he showed up at an ICE facility to pay his departure bond. ICE officers there discovered another active criminal warrant for Esquivel-Garcia; he reportedly failed to report to a probation officer, pay court fees, or complete a victim impact panel and DWI education program, among other violations. They arrested him and turned him over to local police. His probation for the highway obstruction conviction was revoked.
Things get very blurry here. It’s unknown what happened or why, but the ICE statement reports that, four days after this latest arrest, on May 29, local police authorities released him back to ICE. It’s unknown why the agency couldn’t hold him, perhaps because his release on the bond a year earlier was still good. This Google-translated Telemundo San Antonio report says that ICE asked local authorities to keep Esquivel-Garcia in custody.
To no avail, apparently. Esquivel-Garcia was free again. Vargas was dead a couple of weeks later.
Even with agreement that Esquivel-Garcia should never have lived, worked, and made the acquaintance of Vargas in San Antonio, the failure keep him behind bars or more expeditiously deport him occurred in a regionally blue political atmosphere in which San Antonio kick-started a lawsuit with other Texas cities to sue the State of Texas over a tough May 2017 anti-sanctuary city law. Senate Bill 4 (SB4) requires local authorities to honor federal detention requests for people jailed for non-immigration crimes. Local authorities face fines, removal from office, and criminal charges for failing to comply with detainer requests. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus reportedly is under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office on 31 complaints that he violated SB4, none of them yet sustained.
An unverified report quotes a family friend as saying San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and city attorneys told the Vargas family not to go public about the case; police deny that.
Whatever the truth on outstanding questions, what seems indisputable at this point is that the death of Vargas should be publicly acknowledged and counted with the rest so that his loss might one day also help prevent needless future casualties of laxly enforced immigration law.
March 1, 2017 — Esquivel-Garcia is arrested for drunken driving; ICE places an immigration detainer on him and begins removal proceedings.
April 2017 — An immigration judge allows bond; Esquivel-Garcia bonds out.
January 2018 — Esquivel-Garcia receives 12 months’ probation related to the original drunken driving matter. He was required to comply with a number of probation conditions, as is routine.
May 10, 2018 — Warrant for Esquivel-Garcia's arrest issued for violating conditions of his release; he is not immediately arrested.
May 21, 2018 — The removal proceedings begun in March 2017 finish up. Esquivel-Garcia a "voluntary departure" order to leave by July 20, 2018, which is a status meaning he won't be precluded from future legal applications to enter if he leaves as scheduled. He has to pay a departure bond to go along with this.
May 25, 2018 — Esquivel-Garcia arrested by ICE for outstanding warrant issued May 10 as he tries to pay his departure bond. His 12-month probation is withdrawn.
May 29, 2018 — Even though the probation is withdrawn, local authorities release Esquivel-Garcia back to ICE. ICE releases him on a departure bond and reminds him of his July 20, 2018, deadline to depart set by the judge on May 21.
June 16, 2018 — Vargas last seen leaving his job at Bowl and Barrel.
June 18, 2018 — Vargas' body found in burned apartment; Esquivel-Garcia arrested by San Antonio Police Department on murder and arson charges; ICE places detainer with Bexar County Jail.
August 28, 2018 — At the time of publication, Esquivel-Garcia is being held in the Bexar County Jail on a $195,000 bond and an ICE detainer.