SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It was good that an elected state judge in San Antonio last week sentenced an illegally present Mexican national to life in a Texas prison after conviction at trial for murdering San Antonio college student Jared Vargas. But justice and broader public safety were not thoroughly served here, and the victim's family was left wanting.
The problem is that a key element of Vargas's murder was hermetically excluded from the trial: That murderer Ernesto Esquivel-Garcia was a criminal illegal immigrant from Mexico who could have been deported several times before he killed Vargas, but wasn't.
Before the trial started last month, the defendant's legal team filed a motion to exclude any "reference to, or insinuation concerning the status or nature of Ernesto Esquivel-Garcia's immigration or citizenship status" due to its potential "harmful effect" and its "highly prejudicial content".
Judge Kevin M. O'Connell and prosecutors of Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales' office, whose 2018 electoral campaign got a $1 million boost from liberal billionaire George Soros, yielded without a fight in this sanctuary-wanna-be South Texas city. By signing the order, Judge O'Connell essentially muzzled any discussion or revelation at the recent trial and sentencing hearing, organic or orchestrated, as to why the deportable convicted criminal was able to stay in the country long enough to kill an American citizen.
Blocking the information entirely from an open courtroom guaranteed that a poisonous mystery — the most pivotal causal factor in Vargas' murder — will eat away at surviving members of his family until they learn what happened.
"We don't understand why he was able to get arrested and get released and get arrested and then get released," Cristin Vargas, the victim's aunt and family spokeswoman, told CIS. "Based on our understanding of the law he should have been deported before all this happened."
Granted, those immigration system failings weren't on trial, and Texas officials no doubt have their legal reasoning. But an argument should have been made that allowing any specificity to surface about why Esquivel-Garcia was not deported before he killed, though certainly not in lieu of direct evidence of the physical murder itself, was an essential part of a whole truth that can serve the ends of justice. And isn't that the point of a murder trial? This truth might well also have identified repairable flaws in the immigration system, held public servants in it to account, and by those save other lives one day.
Perhaps that's overstating the matter. We'll never know now. Cristin Vargas said she and other family members are grateful for the life sentence the judge handed down. But they will have to continue an inquiry now on their own, even though they don't really know how. Before the trial, this was a bit of crusade. Cristin ran head-on into official refusals to, for instance, identify an immigration judge who freed his killer to kill Vargas. The Vargas family has formed bonds with other similarly situated families who also have angrily stewed about the opacity of an immigration enforcement system that killed their loved ones.
"In our situation, when we were trying to put all of this together, we met obstacles and road blocks one after another," she said. "We still don't know why this happened to Jared."
The False Comparison Talking Point
The story of Vargas' murder by an illegal alien who could have been first deported — the last time just two weeks before Esquivel-Garcia killed — is distressingly familiar by now, framed in the politics of our day by talking points.
One of the most disingenuous is trotted out to neutralize critics and block change every time a deportable illegal immigrant commits a heinous crime against an American citizen. Pro-illegal immigration advocates immediately invoke the inappropriate comparison where U.S. citizens are said to be more likely to commit violent crimes than illegal immigrants generally. But this argument is damagingly wrong because the pool sample involves all illegal immigrants, not the ones who count: those with preexisting criminal histories that reasonably predict future criminality and who, as a result, are under removal orders.
As well, the comparison of crime rates for U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants is faulty because, while there is no choice but for the nation to suffer and process U.S. citizens who commit crimes, deportation is an option for non-U.S. citizens with prior criminal histories. Therefore, by simply firing a legal mechanism, we have control over whether these victimizations even occur.
Cases like the murder of Jared Vargas are part of an undeclared national emergency of unnecessary and conclusively preventable machete and firearm murders, rapes of children and women, drunk-driving manslaughters, and aggravated robberies across the country. The systemic weaknesses that allow deportable aliens to be present to commit these crimes, were they to be comprehended, might well inform life-saving realignments in the immigration enforcement system. This is a complex system of fail points where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyers, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations personnel, immigration judges, and local police and jailers each hold pieces of power to swiftly deport illegally present criminals most likely to commit fresh crimes, or to free them instead.
Cristin Vargas said that knowing where the breakdown victimized him will remain paramount the rest of her life since those who ran the trial, in their different capacities, disallowed any talk of it.
"We're definitely not done," she said. "We have committed ourselves and our lives essentially to help other people and other families hopefully not have to go through what we've gone through."
With what's publicly known about where and how that puzzle-piece system failed Vargas, it's almost impossible to pinpoint where things went wrong in his case, who dropped what ball, and what those who were part of it might do better to save the next Vargas.
Released, Apprehended, Released, Apprehended, then Released
As I wrote last year, 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. As established during the court proceedings, Vargas was a hard-working young man with ambition, uninvolved in drugs or trouble of any sort. He was working part-time at a local restaurant where Esquivel-Garcia, an illegally present Mexican national, also worked.
In what prosecutors said was a robbery attempt gone bad, Esquivel-Garcia befriended Vargas at work, and lured him to his apartment. Esquivel-Garcia taped his victim's mouth and nose, wrapped his head in plastic, then strangled him, slit his throat, and stabbed him repeatedly. He hid the body in a closet for two days then burned it in an act that led to his arrest.
How Esquivel-Garcia entered the United States and was able to live and work is one thing to know. But why was he able to stay is the main thing. He first came to the attention of ICE following a March 1, 2017, arrest for drunken driving and criminal mischief charges in San Antonio. Apparently, he'd tried to run over the parents of a girlfriend who'd scorned him.
For those charges, he pleaded down to obstructing a highway and received deferred adjudication with 12 months' probation. These prompted deportation proceedings; ICE took him into custody the next month, in April 2017. But he made the low bond he was given and got out while the immigration case sat ... and sat.
More than a year would pass before a federal immigration judge would even look at the case against the trouble-making Esquivel-Garcia. Finally, on May 21, 2018, 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 form of resolution judges usually bestow on productive non-citizens who have stayed out of trouble; it allows respondents to one day legally apply for re-entry. It allows many others to simply ignore the order and disappear into the ether.
What ICE lawyers counter-argued that day in their courtroom adversary role should be made known to determine if they might have missed a chance to influence matters.
That a judge trustingly granted Esquivel-Garcia the gift of voluntary departure still stuns the family of the murderer's victim.
"When we talk about that there's this thing called 'voluntary departure,' people are completely and utterly shocked," Cristin Vargas said. "The concept of voluntary departure is alarming."
There is more to the story, of course. Local authorities in a city known for aspiring strongly to become a "sanctuary city" so that it will never have to turn over jailed criminal illegal immigrants to ICE blew other chances to keep Esquivel-Garcia behind bars until he left.
An ICE statement to local media said that soon after Esquivel-Garcia learned of his May 21, 2018, voluntary departure order gift, he showed up at an ICE facility to pay his departure bond. ICE ERO officers on duty discovered another active criminal warrant for Esquivel-Garcia; he reportedly failed to report to a probation officer or follow any of the basic terms of probation, just ignored them all. His bond had been revoked, so ICE arrested him and turned him over to local police.
The ICE statement reports that, four days later, on May 29, local police then released him back to ICE. Inexplicably, ICE didn't hold and deport him on the spot. They certainly had the authority to do so. This Google-translated Telemundo San Antonio report says that ICE asked local authorities to keep Esquivel-Garcia in custody. But local authorities said no, again inexplicably. Which officials were making decisions and why is key to know.
With neither ICE nor local police willing or able to hold him, Esquivel-Garcia was free again.
Vargas was dead two weeks later.
The country still needs to bear witness to the cases where this has happened, in both the courtroom and the national media to force informed change at the right junctures.
This trial would not have been necessary had the immigration system worked properly. Vargas would still be alive. His family wouldn't be left with nagging questions about what happened, victimized by the system, in a different way, once again. And we shouldn't even be having this conversation.