Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, the two former Border Patrol agents whose prison sentences were commuted by President Bush this week, made an awful lot of mistakes on that day in February 2005 when they met Osvaldo Aldrete Davila near the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the time, Aldrete Davila was crossing illegally into the United States in a van carrying 743 pounds of marijuana. When he saw the agents coming toward him, he turned back toward Mexico. They pursued him until he lost control of the van and scrambled out. There was a scuffle, he broke away -- and the agents fired about 15 shots, ultimately hitting him in the buttocks. Aldrete Davila, it turned out, was unarmed; he stumbled away, and the agents failed to catch him. They didn’t even know for sure whether they had hit him, but they decided not to report the incident and carefully removed all the shotgun shell casings from the ground.
When the facts emerged, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas decided to prosecute, which seems like a reasonable decision. An unarmed man had been shot while fleeing, a coverup had taken place, and it was unclear whether the agents’ explanations could pass muster. Ramos and Compean were convicted of an assortment of weapon and assault charges and sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively. That’s a very long time considering that Aldrete Davila wasn’t killed -- but the judge’s hands were tied by a law requiring a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence because a firearm was discharged during a crime of violence.
That was when the case took on a life of its own, becoming a cause celebre in the immigration wars. Anti-immigration advocates portrayed the agents as “good guys” who were being “crucified” merely for doing their jobs. Lobbying began in earnest for a full pardon. CNN’s resident xenophobe, Lou Dobbs, took up the cause.
It is depressing that the discussion degenerated so far. Like so much of our national discourse, the debate over immigration is too often emotional, overwrought and irrational. The simple truth is that law enforcement officers are not all good, and they’re certainly not entitled to shoot people who don’t pose them any harm -- even drug smugglers or illegal immigrants.
This page believes that the agents committed serious felonies and were rightly prosecuted. But the sentences they received were also too long. As we have argued in the past, taking discretion away from judges by imposing mandatory sentencing rules is almost never a good idea. By granting a commutation rather than a full pardon, Bush said -- rightly -- that the agents’ punishment should be reduced but that the underlying conviction should remain on the books.