Sons' deaths as told by SoCal parents at GOP convention heating up immigration debate

Jamiel Shaw Sr. speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jamiel Shaw Sr. speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Jamiel Shaw Sr. speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jamiel Shaw Sr., father of Jamiel Shaw Jr., stands next to deputy district attorney Bobby Grace who prosecuted the murder case against Pedro Espinoza. Espinoza, an unauthorized immigrant and member of the 18th Street gang, shot and killed 17-year old Jamiel Shaw Jr. in 2008.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Parents of two young Southern California men killed by unauthorized immigrants took the stage at the Republican National Convention Monday night and blamed their sons' deaths on what they view as lax immigration policies.

They praised GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump for his hardline positions on immigration, including his promise to build a border wall between Mexico and the U.S. to prevent illegal crossings.

"We need to secure our borders so no other person ever has to go through this kind of grief, pain and agony, knowing it could have been prevented," said Sabine Durden, speaking to the convention crowd.

Durden of Moreno Valley is the mother of Dominic Durden, a 30-year-old Riverside County sheriff's dispatcher killed in 2012 when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle driven by Juan Zacarias Tzun, a Guatemalan national living in the U.S. illegally.

"Build the wall, and Americans need to come first, thank you," Sabine Durden said.

It's impossible to know if additional border fencing would have prevented Dominic Durden's death. Immigration officials said it's unclear when and how Tzun arrived in the U.S., only that he entered the country illegally. 

Tzun pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in the crash. He was eventually deported.

Jamiel Shaw also addressed the convention crowd Monday night, describing the 2008 death of his son, Jamiel Shaw Jr., a Los Angeles High School football star. 

The 17-year-old was shot in the head by Pedro Espinoza, an 18th Street gang member, who arrived in the U.S. illegally as a toddler. Immigration officials said they did not become aware of Espinoza's illegal status until after the killing took place. 

To determine what security measures might have made a difference in either case, one would "need a Ouija board," said Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley, criminologist.

Tzun and Espinoza both had previous encounters with the law.

Espinoza's case is the most clear-cut: Shaw was murdered in early 2008, several months before the rollout of Secure Communities, a federal immigration enforcement program. Under Secure Communities, officials shared fingerprints of those booked in local jails with immigration authorities, who marked the suspects for deportation if there was a match.

The program, hailed as a way to ferret out deportable criminals, was expanded nationwide by the Obama administration. It was discontinued recently, and replaced with a similar but more flexible enforcement process after critics complained that Secure Communities led to record deportations, including that of non-criminals.

But prior to 2008, when Espinoza began attracting the attention of law enforcement, there was no automatic way for immigration officials to know about him.

Jamiel Shaw Sr. said in his convention speech that Espinoza had previously been released with a deportation hold — when immigration officials ask a local agency to hold a person they've arrested for deportation. But on Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said this was not the case; they said they only became aware that Espinoza was deportable when he landed in custody after the murder.

Espinoza was sentenced to death in 2012 and remains on death row.

How Tzun evaded the attention of immigration officials is less clear. ICE officials first became aware of him after the accident that killed Durden in July 2012. According to the agency, Tzun's status was discovered by Riverside County officers working with federal agents under a federal-local program known as 287(g), one that allowed them to screen jail inmates for their immigration status.

Most counties, including Riverside, that used 287(g) have since dropped it. Many did so recently after a 2014 court ruling in Oregon raised legal concerns about agencies holding immigrants for ICE without probable cause. Los Angeles County supervisors voted to stop using 287(g) in 2015.

Homeland Security officials said Tuesday there were no indications in their databases that Tzun had been deported before, as Sabine Durden indicated in her GOP convention speech.

But Tzun had prior encounters with the law, including for drunk driving. It's unclear how he avoided getting on authorities' radars until mid-2012. By then, Riverside County was already using the 287(g) program. Secure Communities was in use as well.

After Dominic Durden's death, an immigration judge released Tzun on bond, but he eventually was sentenced to 270 days in jail, according to the Riverside County District Attorney's Office. County officials said Tzun was not under the influence at the time of the crash. He served his sentence and was remanded back to ICE custody in November 2013. He was deported in March 2014.

Last year, ICE deported 235,413 immigrants with criminal convictions, including for minor offenses, according to the agency. Of these, 139,368 people had committed more serious offenses, among them homicide, assault, drug offenses and drunk driving.

Research studies have shown that first-generation immigrants tend to offend at relatively low rates, said Berkeley criminologist Zimring.

A study released last year using FBI and census data indicated that violent crime had declined between 1990 and 2013, a period during which the nation's unauthorized immigrant population grew dramatically.

"First-generation immigrants, including from Mexico, generally are here to work and have relatively low rates of crime and violence," Zimring said. "A  very, very small percentage of the violent crimes that we experience are a product of these folks."

Those who have a higher risk of getting in trouble with the law are their American-born children, he said, and this has been observed across generations and ethnic groups.

"They offend at larger rates than their parents, which is part of their getting Americanized, I guess," Zimring said.