Editorial pages across Denver and Colorado still burn with emotion aimed at a system that allowed a 23-year-old illegal immigrant with a well documented history of crime and an extraordinary run of luck escape prosecution and deportation. But, luck finally ran out, police say, for Francis Hernandez, along with the three people he is accused of killing, when he crashed his SUV into an Aurora store front where they sat enjoying ice cream in early September.
Records indicate that Hernandez is a Guatemalan citizen who has lived and worked in the Denver area for a number of years. Police say that Hernandez has also been arrested 16 times since 2003, but somehow always escaped deportation.
“Everyone feels bad about this kind of tragedy,” said Tony Chavez, a retired factory worker enjoying the sun outside a Highlands coffee shop. “It should never have happened. But what makes it worse is how all Latinos come to feel when someone in the country illegally is responsible.” In fact, emotions fray across racial lines with very little blurring in defining people’s feelings.
“The system is broke,” said a Common Grounds Coffee Shop customer who asked that his name not be used. “Illegals cause so much crime and now this,” he said, alluding to the three Aurora ice cream shops deaths. “Can you imagine what Mexico or any other country would do if we went there and committed crimes that caused people to die? They wouldn’t be nearly as tolerant as we are toward this guy!”
Local law enforcement often reacts to the outcry of an illegal immigrant involved in serious crime by saying its hands are tied because immigration laws fall under federal jurisdiction. Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said Hernandez was in custody for another crime in April when his department inquired to Immigration and Customs Enforcement about Hernandez status. Robinson said ICE failed to respond to his department’s inquiry. With no response, Hernandez was allowed to post bail and go free.
“Every time this kind of crime happens, I pray it’s not someone here illegally who did it,” said Maricela Cruz, outside a Denver King Soopers store. “When something like this happens, especially to a child, it’s so sad. But it also makes me feel like a lot of people are looking at me like I’m somehow responsible. I know I’m not but a lot of people who don’t like immigrants, I sometimes feel, look at me differently.”
Hernandez, who may have lived in this country since as early as 1991, has sailed through the legal system without deportation. But, because the crimes, including vehicular homicide for which he now stands accused have stirred so much anger and emotion, things may be about to change. Three Aurora legislators, Senator Suzanne Williams and Representatives Morgan Carroll and Karen Middleton, want to review every criminal incident in which Hernandez was involved. The three lawmakers don’t plan to introduce new legislation but want to try to put pressure on federal authorities to more stringently enforce immigration laws.
“Had current laws been enforced,” they said, “these citizens would not be dead.” In fact, had ICE entered the picture early on with Hernandez, he may have been deported long ago.
“There is nothing anyone can say about this crime except it didn’t need to happen. It could have been anyone behind the wheel of that car that killed these people,” Cruz said. “Unfortunately, it was someone who was here illegally. And even though none of us is responsible–and we all know it–it doesn’t change how people who don’t like immigrants, especially those with brown skin, seem to look at all of us a little differently.”
Hernandez remains in jail facing a series of charges, including three counts of vehicular homicide. Bond has been set at $350,000. If found guilty on all charges, Hernandez could receive a maximum of 78 years in prison.