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Smuggling-Ring Survivors Adrift Legally

Some are likely to avoid deportation while they are needed to testify in federal and Texas cases.

May 24, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Survivors of the smuggling attempt that claimed the lives of 19 immigrants this month are caught in legal limbo. They are here illegally and would normally be deported, but their testimony will be critical to the government's case against the accused smugglers, authorities said.

About 15 of the 54 known survivors probably will be issued work visas to remain in the United States temporarily, their attorney said in an interview Friday. That would make them available to testify throughout the federal and state criminal cases against the accused smugglers.

"They could remain here for quite a while," said attorney Frank Aguilar, who was appointed by a federal magistrate this week to represent 49 survivors. "But I'm sure these people are happy to be able to stay and earn some money in the meantime."

Two attorneys retained by the remaining five survivors could not be reached for comment.

Nine people have been charged in the case, officials said. Six have been taken into custody, and authorities have issued arrest warrants for three. Federal authorities have accused the suspects of a variety of crimes in connection with the smuggling ring. State officials say they probably will pursue a criminal case against the suspects once the federal case is over.

Nancy Herrera, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said the survivors have been released on unsecured $5,000 bonds. Those bonds, however, are designed merely to ensure that the survivors are available for depositions and testimony in the criminal cases, Herrera said.

The survivors remained in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement this weekend. Herrera said they are being housed in an undisclosed location, but added that it is not a detention center or a jail. Aguilar said he thinks that they are in a local hotel.

In coming weeks, the federal government will begin taking formal depositions of the survivors, 32 of whom are from Mexico. The rest are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. That process will narrow down which of the survivors' accounts are critical to the criminal case -- and, consequently, which of them will remain in the United States, Herrera said.

"There are two different issues," Herrera said.

"Each of them is in the United States illegally. Ordinarily, if they weren't material witnesses, decisions would be made about returning them ... to their country of origin. Other options have to be explored to make them available to either the government or the defense for trial in the case."

As many as 100 immigrants sneaked across the U.S.-Mexican border this month and assembled at safe houses in Harlingen, Texas, officials have said. On May 12, they crowded into the back of a tractor-trailer and headed northeast toward Houston.

Early the next morning, the driver of the tractor-trailer, Tyrone Williams, pulled into a truck stop in Victoria, Texas, and discovered that some of the immigrants had died, he has told investigators. Williams fled for Houston, where he was arrested.

Sheriff's deputies discovered 13 people dead in the back of the truck, victims of excessive heat and a lack of oxygen. Four others were discovered dead on the ground nearby and two more died in hospitals.

Williams, 32, of Schenectady, N.Y., has been charged with transporting illegal immigrants and conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants. Five others accused of various roles in the smuggling ring have been arrested.

In addition, warrants have been issued for three others, the U.S. attorney's office said: the couple accused of organizing the trip, Victor Sanchez Rodriguez, 55, and his wife, Emma Sapata Rodriguez, 57, both of Brownsville, Texas; and a man known to investigators only as "Joe."

Federal authorities have identified most of those killed in the incident, and began transporting the bodies to the victims' home countries this week.

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