July 18–It was a horrific scene: a screaming woman running from her house — her upper torso sliced by a chainsaw.
Her husband, the alleged assailant, came out “showered in blood,” a neighbor said. At least two of the couple’s three young boys, all witnesses to the attack, were also sprayed by their mother’s blood, another neighbor told a TV crew.
A chainsaw attack may be the stuff of slasher films, but the scene in Whittier last week had one more element that has made it national news: the man accused of attacking his wife with a chainsaw has been previously deported to his home country, Mexico, not just once, but 11 times since 2005.
That’s the kind of news that sparks illegal immigration foes to point to the U.S. immigration system as a failure in need of revamping. And a wall — “a big, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico, as President Trump has repeatedly called for–would help keep out people like the alleged assailant, who didn’t have permission to be here in the first place, they say.
“We have plenty of our own homegrown criminals. And we don’t need foreign nationals joining in, so it does matter, especially for family members who lost loved ones at the hands of someone here illegally,” said Robin Hvidston, of the Claremont-based We the People Rising, a group against illegal immigration.
That’s the kind of response that disheartens immigration advocates, who fear this kind of sensationalistic case could be used as additional fodder against immigrants and Trump’s continued references to some unauthorized immigrants as criminals, even “animals.”
Domestic violence happens among American citizens too, they point out.
“It goes to domestic violence being a problem in our society and not him being undocumented,” said Luis Suarez, policy coordinator for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
A chainsaw assault, they continue, is an outlier that doesn’t represent the millions of immigrants — including those here illegally — who go about their daily lives peacefully. It’s certainly no more representative of immigrants than last year’s Las Vegas massacre represented white men.
“It’s a horrible crime committed by someone who needs to be in jail, but it doesn’t represent the proven contributions of millions and millions of immigrants,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Still, some Whittier residents were questioning the immigration status of the suspect, Whittier resident Alejandro Alvarez-Villegas, even before news broke that he is, as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement later put it, “a serial immigration violator.”
“It’s sad to have to ask, but is Alejandro Alvarez in the U.S. legally, or, if not, what is the closest sanctuary city where he will be protected from ICE?” one man wrote on a Whittier Police Department Facebook post after Villegas Alvarez fled his home.
Responded another: “Do you ask this of mass shooters who are pasty white?”
“Totally irrelevant!” a woman wrote on the Facebook post.
Alvarez-Villegas, 32, was arrested the following day, July 12, in Chula Vista. He faces charges of attempted murder, aggravated mayhem, driving or taking a vehicle without consent, hit-and-run driving resulting in property damage and three counts of child abuse. He is expected to be arraigned July 25 at Norwalk Superior Court.
His 34-year-old wife, who asked police to not identify her, suffered severe injuries, has undergone surgery and is in stable condition, Whittier police spokesman John Scoggins said Tuesday. Their three young children, who were in the home when the attack occurred, are in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services, Scoggins said.
Immigration officials have lodged an immigration detainer against Alvarez-Villegas, which means that once he is eligible to be released from jail, federal agents can pick him up and take him into immigration custody. A person who illegally reenters the country following deportation could be punished by up to 20 years in federal prison.
Alvarez-Villegas has a criminal record beyond his immigration violations. In 2014 he was sentenced to 270 days in county jail after pleading no contest to a charge of driving with a blood alcohol content of at least .08 percent. In 2013, he was sentenced to 180 days for possession of a controlled substance and being under the influence. In 2010, there was another charge of being under the influence of a controlled substance but that charge was dropped and the case dismissed, according to court records.
Immigration officials did not release specifics on the Whittier man’s many removals from the country, nor could they provide data on how many people in the country are repeat violators.
Last year, between Jan. 20 through Sept. 30, 92 percent of the nation’s 110,568 administrative arrests — holds by ICE — involved a criminal conviction, a pending criminal charge, an ICE fugitive, or someone processed with a reinstated final order of deportation, according to federal data.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is charged with safeguarding the nation’s borders, has seen the percentage of people apprehended more than one time by agents drop from 16 percent during the 2013 fiscal year to 10 percent during the 2017 fiscal year.
Whether more immigration, and illegal immigration, leads to more crime is a hot topic.
Many studies show that it doesn’t.
“Across our studies, one finding remains clear: Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence, all else being equal,” co-wrote UC Irvine criminology professor Charis Kubrin in an article published last year in Scientific American.
Kubrin and other academics examined 51 studies on the topic published during a 20 year period.
Another report published in late 2016 compared immigration rates with crime rates for 200 metropolitan areas over four decades and also found that the narrative that immigrants, and illegal immigrants, lead to an increase in crime is untrue.
“The link between immigration and crime exists in the imagination of Americans, and nowhere else,” is the sub-head of an analysis published in March by The Marshall Project.
Yet, a good chunk of Americans don’t buy that.
Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents in a 2017 Gallup poll on the subject said immigrants make the U.S. crime situation worse.
Those who oppose illegal immigration point out that states and local jurisdictions, which account for most incarcerations, don’t consistently track the legal status of suspects. That, they argue, makes it hard to accurately measure the impact of immigration on crime.
Immigration reformer Hvidston, of Claremont, said she is friendly with the family of a man killed by an undocumented man who “never spent a day in jail,” and that the perpetrator’s records are incomplete.
“It’s heartbreaking. (My friend’s family) say to themselves ‘if the government had done its job, my loved one would still be here.”
The federal government, however, does track the citizenship of people convicted of federal crimes.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that non-citizens were responsible for 21 percent of federal crimes between 2011 and 2016, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports limiting immigration. It’s unclear how many of those are in the country illegally. And when immigration crimes are included, that statistic jumps to 44 percent.
A policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based non-profit that promotes bipartisanship, wrote in March that there isn’t enough state and local data to answer the question of whether immigrants are more likely to commit crimes.
Regardless of statistics, reaction to gruesome crimes such as the chainsaw attack in Whittier is swift and comes from both sides.
On Twitter, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin piped in: “Just terrible.” Far-right news site Breitbart posted a story with a bit of sarcasm: “Act of love.” And closer to home, Orange County-based GOP leader Shawn Steel posted the story on Twitter with this header: “Welcome to America.”
“Murderers should not be welcome to America,” said Steel, a California representative on the Republican National Committee.
Does a case like this give a bigger boost to the anti-illegal immigration side?
“It helps and it hurts,” said Don Rosenberg, a Westlake Village activist who was recently went to the White House to meet with Trump. Rosenberg, who says his 25-year-old son Drew was killed in a 2010 traffic accident involving an undocumented immigrant, was at the White House with other families whose loved ones were killed by people in the country illegally.
In some ways, the chainsaw assault helps bring attention to their cause, Rosenberg said.
“But it (also) hurts,” he added. “Because people fluff it off as a sensationalist case.”
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.
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