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Border death points to peril for both sides

A murder charge for a U.S. agent is controversial. But people agree: Crossers and enforcers each face dangers.

July 02, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BISBEE, ARIZ. — What's clear from the surveillance tape is that Nicholas Corbett wheeled his Border Patrol truck around and cut off the four immigrants who had been trudging through the desert less than 100 yards north of the border.

But the tape does not show what happened next on that January afternoon.

According to court records, Corbett told supervisors that he had killed Francisco Javier Dominguez-Rivera, 22, with a single gunshot after the immigrant raised a rock to throw at him.

But the other immigrants -- two brothers and a sister-in-law of Dominguez-Rivera -- said that their relative had been empty-handed and that Corbett had pushed him to his knees before shooting him.

The Cochise County prosecutor has charged Corbett, 39, with murder -- an unusual step, especially in a conservative county long affected by illegal immigration.

The judge could charge Corbett with a lesser count such as manslaughter at a preliminary hearing scheduled for August.

"We came to the conclusion that this is not a legally justified shooting," said County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer, who says he has been inundated with angry e-mails since filing the charges in late April. "It's an incident that has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the immigration issue."

But in southeastern Arizona -- where homeowners find immigrants hiding in their backyards and where Border Patrol checkpoints proliferate -- illegal immigration permeates every aspect of life and colors how some judge the shooting. The one thing people agree on is that the case demonstrates how the border has become more perilous for those trying to sneak across it and for the agents assigned to catch them.

Assaults on agents are up 10% in southeastern Arizona over last year, and though the number is holding steady nationwide, the Border Patrol says attacks have become more violent. Officers say immigrants are more likely to run and throw rocks or, as happened near Yuma, Ariz., last month, Molotov cocktails.

The Border Patrol has seized nearly twice as much cocaine this year as last. The crossing is riskier for illegal immigrants too. Deaths among crossers are up 21% over last year. Bandits watch border-crossing routes, robbing immigrants and sometimes kidnapping entire groups. And Mexican border towns have been racked by drug violence that U.S. authorities fear could spread across the line.

"A lot of it has to do with desperation," said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network in Tucson, an immigrant rights group. "Because the border is so built-up and because of its militarization, there's been a buildup of smuggling operations that are highly professional, highly armed. Now there's a lot more at stake."

Corbett's supporters agree, but add that they believe his prosecution makes it riskier for all sides. Agent Brandon Judd, who works at the same station as Corbett, said that other agents had grown wary of using their guns since the charges were filed -- and that the smuggling rings know that.

"The less likely we are to use force," said Judd, a vice president of the local Border Patrol agents union, "the more likely they are."

Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, represents the three witnesses to the shooting, and said that a more restrained Border Patrol might be a good thing.

"Violence along the border is an epidemic, and it's not just the smugglers," Schey said. "It's also the Border Patrol themselves. They're just extremely quick to use deadly force."

Corbett has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Sean Chapman, declined to comment on the case. During a brief hearing last month, he stressed that his client "puts his life on the line on a daily basis."

Some activists against illegal immigration say that the case is the latest in a line of prosecutions with the intent to undermine the United States' border security. "They're prosecuting these cases at the behest of the Mexican government," said Andy Ramirez of the Covina-based Friends of the Border Patrol, noting that Mexican President Felipe Calderon had sent a letter to Washington condemning the shooting and urging a full investigation.

The case that has received the most attention is against former Border Patrol Agents Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose "Alonso" Compean, who were sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, for shooting a fleeing drug runner and then covering it up. Several members of Congress have called for the two to be pardoned, and tens of thousands of activists have signed petitions supporting the former agents.

In contrast, the reaction to the Corbett case has been relatively subdued on both sides, especially in Cochise County. Weeks after the shooting, agents shot a dog. "A lot more people were upset about that than about Francisco," said Cecile Lumer, an activist in Bisbee with immigrant rights group Citizens for Border Solutions.

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