Court Upholds Returning Young Offenders to Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state appellate court has declared that San Diego's Border Youth Project acts within the U.S. Constitution when it returns undocumented Mexican juveniles who are convicted of crimes here to their country for punishment.

The widely observed case drew a 2-1 decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal, with the majority ruling that the cooperative effort between California and Mexican authorities doesn't conflict with federal powers.

Further, Justices Patricia Benke and Gilbert Nares held that the program doesn't deny youthful Mexican offenders the right to appeal their convictions in American courts after they are sent back to Mexico.

In their 44-page opinion issued this week, the two justices concluded "there is no implied or express signal from Congress which preempts state orders directing the return of alien minors to their homes."

But, in a blunt dissenting opinion, Justice Howard Wiener was troubled by the fact that young offenders are convicted in San Diego County while Mexican jurisdictions are free to ignore the sentence and mete out their own penalty.

"To say the least, I find the notion of 'Trial here, punishment there' to be startling, particularly where the punishment 'there' is open-ended," Wiener wrote.

The appellate court upheld a San Diego County Superior Court ruling handed down in 1987. San Diego attorney Stephen Temko, who represented the key figure in the case, a Mexican youth identified only as Manuel S.P., said Friday he will ask the California Supreme Court in early December to consider hearing the suit.

Temko said it has "turned the Constitution upside down," besides allowing California to "enter into treaty relations" with other nations.

Meanwhile, the case remains a test of the Border Youth Project and, potentially, similar programs in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Los Angeles County is considering an effort patterned after San Diego's.

When the program was established two years ago, San Diego authorities hailed it as an innovative method to handle Mexican juveniles who repeatedly cross the border and commit crimes. Previously, offenders were simply deported or spent short periods at the county's Campo detention facility.

Program supporters said the youths would receive punishment or rehabilitation in their native country, and San Diego County would save $1 million a year in housing and clothing for the foreigners. So far, 145 juveniles have been taken back to Mexico.

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