Slain Mesa Store Clerk Inspires Legislation Cracking Down on Undocumented Immigrant Felons

Immigrant right activists at a rally July 17 protesting Sheriff Joe Arpaio's harsh immigration enforcement approach.
Immigrant right activists at a rally July 17 protesting Sheriff Joe Arpaio's harsh immigration enforcement approach.
Jim Louvau

At 21, Grant Ronnebeck, a bright, friendly young man with an “infectious smile,” was just beginning to map out his life dreams. But, his uncle testified during an emotional U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, because of the country’s lax immigration policies, he won’t ever get to “follow his heart.”

Grant, a convenience store clerk from Mesa, was murdered by an undocumented immigrant in January who previously had been convicted of a crime and released.

His story and others like it have inspired a flurry of bi-partisan bills in recent weeks that aim to crack down on felons residing in the country illegally and punish some 200 cities that have passed policies to shelter them from deportation.

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake proposed a bill Tuesday that would withhold federal funding from state and local governments that fail to hand undocumented immigrants over for deportation proceedings after they’ve been convicted of a crime. Last week, he and Senator John McCain rolled out a measure that would require the Department of Homeland Security to deport undocumented immigrants arrested or convicted of serious crimes within 90 days.

California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, are crafting legislation that would force state and local law enforcement to notify immigration officials when an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from custody. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is calling for mandatory minimum prison sentences of five years for immigrants who reenter the country after being deported — regardless of whether they have committed any other crime.

Supporters of such measures argued that the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to cities and states that don’t enforce immigration laws and, at its own discretion, released thousands of convicts onto American streets.

Between January and September, 2014, local and state law enforcement officials denied immigration authority requests to detain undocumented immigrants 8,811 times, Grassley said during the hearing, which was broadcast live online. Of those immigrants, nearly 5,000 had been previously been convicted of crimes. After they were released into the community, close to 1,900 re-offended.

“Enforcing the immigration laws in this country is not a voluntary or trivial matter,” he said. “Real lives are at stake.”

To drive home the point, several people who had lost loved ones shared their stories with the committee.

Grant was working the graveyard shift at Quick Trip when Apolinar Altamirano, a big burly man with a bushy goatee and a furrow in his brow, dumped a handful of change on the counter and demanded a pack of cigarettes, his uncle, Michael Ronnebeck said. When Grant told him he’d need to count the change, he pulled out a gun.

Grant gave him the cigarettes.

Altamirano shot Grant in the head. 

“Seemingly unaffected, the man coldly and callously stepped over Grant’s dying body, grabbed a couple of packs of cigarettes, and then left the store,” Ronnebeck said.

Federal immigration authorities had launched deportation proceedings against Altamirano two years prior. A self-proclaimed member of the Mexican Mafia, Altamirano had taken a plea deal for kidnapping, sexual assault, and burglary. He was sentenced to two years of probation, turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and released on a $10,000 bond.

Before he killed Ronnebeck, two people had filed for protection orders against him. One woman claimed he had threatened to kill her and held a gun to her boyfriend’s head.

When Ronnebeck had finished his testimony, Flake grilled ICE Director Sarah Saldana about the agency’s delay.

“Is that typical for someone to go two full years with seemly no contact [with ICE]?” he asked.

Saldana pursed her lips.

“It can happen, given the half a million case backlog in the immigration courts,” she said.

Critics of proposals to fortify the country’s approach to undocumented immigrants who commit crime argued that one-size-fits-all enforcement penalize entire communities.

“I am deeply concerned that mandating local police cooperation with immigration enforcement will strengthen the hand of violent perpetrators, helping them silence their victims and witnesses,” said Grace Huang, public policy program director for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I’m also concerned that vulnerable immigrant victims brave enough to step forward will face detention, separation from their children, and swift deportation.”

Huang related the story of a young Guatemalan girl who was sexually assaulted by a family friend at the age of five. Because her parents, who were in the country illegally, were terrified of being deported, they did not report the crime for a year. In the meantime, the man went on to molest a second child.

In another case, she said, one of her domestic-violence clients was so frightened of law enforcement officials that she refused to call 911 when her abuser tracked her down in another state and tried to break into her home in the middle of the night. Instead, she frantically repeatedly dialed her lawyer’s empty office.

“When immigrants are afraid to come forward with information about a crime, the entire community is less safe,” Huang said.

When local police are required to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, it’s not uncommon for immigrants who are victims of crime to get deported, said Reverend Salguaro, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

He urged legislators not to focus solely on deportation, but also to “integrate” those undocumented immigrants who don’t commit crime into the community.

“Our immigration system is broken and it needs reform, but we should not move forward with reactionary measures that don’t address the real issues at hand,” said Reverend Salguaro, founded of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “The real solution is broad, just, and humane immigration reform that would place undocumented immigrants on an earned path to citizenship and get people on the rolls. That way we know who the criminals are.”

For his part, Ronnebeck acknowledged the complex nature of the nation’s immigration laws, but pled with lawmakers to get undocumented felons off the streets.

“It is my family’s greatest desire that Grant Ronnebeck’s legacy will be more than an obituary, a cemetery plot, or fond memory,” he said. “Instead, we want Grant’s death to be a force for change and reform in the immigration policies of this great nation.”   

Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Stuart
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