Hispanic Illegals Play Large Role
In Reno Violence, Gang Problems

  by Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

It hasn't been politically correct for them to say it, but local law enforcement people are clear that illegal Hispanic immigrants are involved in a big proportion of Reno's most high-profile violent crimes.
One recent example in the news is Saul Pina, the 16-year-old charged with raping a 16-year-old girl on the Sparks High campus May 8.
Another is Juan Castillo, the young gunman charged with shooting a 12-year-old girl last year in Horseman's Park.
But even local law enforcement professionals have been surprised by the number of illegals being turned up by a new joint program between the Reno Police Department and the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"There's no question, especially in the street crime that we deal with," says Reno Police Chief Jim Weston, that "there's a large population of illegal aliens involved with the local youth gangs.
"It's a much greater number than we anticipated."
Since last August, when the joint program began, he said, about 120 Reno gang members have been deported back to their native countries. All of them were 18 or older and many were some of the most violent criminals in the area.
"Actually our criminal justice systems isn't as effective as the deportation process, in keeping some of these kids out of the [Reno] community or off the streets," said Weston, adding he believes the new program has had a large impact, locally.
Weston took pains to characterize the program as not one "that targets minorities or Hispanics. It's just using any tool that's available to get the criminal gang members out of town. And it's been one of the more effective ones we have found."
J. T. Watson, officer in charge at the local Immigration and Naturalization Service office, told Electric Nevada that he had begun advocating something similar to the current program shortly after his posting to Reno in mid-1993.
It took a while for the idea to gain support, he indicated, because back then "the gang problem wasn't anywhere near as bad as it's gotten to be."
Another reason for the reluctance, he said, was "this feeling that if you get the Immigration Service involved, people in the Hispanic community will just be quiet, they won't deal with you, they won't call the police for help and so forth. And that's a valid concern.
"I would never want to diminish that concern," continued Watson, "but I think we've all seen now [that] the Hispanics are the ones getting preyed upon ... and if we're removing those people who are doing that ... it helps the Hispanic community probably more than any other."
Not only are many of the most violent gang members Hispanic, he said, but two of the major Reno gangs are Hispanic gangs.
Thus the consensus for the joint program that Reno police and the INS came up with last August. The program involves the assignment by the INS of local special agents to ride and work with the Reno Police Department's Community Action Team, which works to suppress violent gangs.
"As you might well expect, the P.D. has a very good grasp on who are and who are not gang members," said Watson, adding that "the Community Action Team [does] more than just arrest gang members -- they also work on community activities and so forth. It's a complete and full approach to the problem."
That is why, he indicated, the INS takes its lead from the Reno police when the combined Reno police-INS teams confront Hispanic gang members.
Usually that involves, he said, approaching "those individuals that, for whatever reason, the CAT team wants us to talk to, to deal with, et cetera."
The procedure is for the INS agents talk to the identified individuals, going through the normal INS procedures to determine whether or not the individuals are aliens, and whether or not they are deportable from the United States.
"Based upon what we find from that, we have one or more courses of action that we can take," said Watson, indicating it depends on whether the gang members have been arrested or not.
In the case of gang members who have not actually been arrested but do turn out to be here illegally, the deportation process proceeds normally.
But "in many cases, the time we talk to the gang members is after they have been arrested. In [the case of] those individuals, we will not complete our processing until they're done with the state.
"We have always worked in the criminal arena after people have been arrested and convicted," said Watson, "and so [with] those gang members who have been arrested and either
Top of page




convicted or are awaiting trial, we go ahead and start our process.
"But with those individuals we will not complete our processing until they're done with the state."
As an example, said Watson, "let's take the young man who's being tried for shooting the 12-year-old girl in Horseman's Parks last year.
"If he's found guilty and sentenced to prison, he will serve out his time before we attempt to remove him from the United States."
Under what is called "the institutional hearing program, we might very well have the hearing while he's in prison."
In that program, Watson explained, "the judge actually goes to the prison, we have lawyers representing the government that go to the prison," and the hearing takes place within the institution's walls.
Whether the young man will be deported, said Watson most likely will be up to the Immigration judge.
"If he is, the day he walks out, I'll have officers there with a warrant for his deportation .. and we will immediately remove him from the United States.
"Of course the advantage of this is that, if we weren't doing this, we'd have to meet them at the prison door, and we'd have to pay to detain them all over again while they go through the deportation process."
That process, he said, "has certain appeal rights where things can go on for months, if not years. So by doing that in the prison, we wind up saving the taxpayers a lot of money in the long run."
Both Police Chief Weston and the INS's Watson agreed that it is too early yet to tell how big a dent the new program is placing in Truckee Meadows violent crime. Nevertheless, both believe the impact may be substantial.
There are some indications, said Watson, that word on the street about the program and what "some of these kids are seeing [with their] friends" is making a difference.
"I'll give you a classic example," he said, "that's right in the news now -- the two boys arrested in Sparks for the rape at Sparks High School.
"One of those individuals is a United States citizen; the other is an illegal alien." Both are now in custody at Wittenberg Hall, the county juvenile detention facility.
"So now he's at Wittenberg, we have [an INS] retainer placed on him, we've already interviewed him, [and] we've completed the paperwork to set in motion his deportation from the United States.
"We've already done that, just this week ... but in doing that, now we find out that his mother and father are here illegally.
"So part of what the police preach to these kids -- and they do a lot of community action things with these kids, -- [is that] if you're here illegal, and you screw up, and you come to INS's attention, [and] if mom and pop and brothers and sisters are illegal, all of you are gonna go."
"I don't know whether that may help deter young folks from getting involved in trouble," said Watson, but he said the strong family ties among Hispanics made him think it could -- and hope it will -- do so.
Watson said that from last August until about two months ago, one of his special agents was assigned to work with the Reno gang unit essentially full-time.
But, "approximately 2 months ago," he said, "we assigned another officer part time.
"For us, it's a major commitment, because I only have four special agents, and I've got one and a half basically working full time on the gang issue with Reno P.D."
In another new local INS program, Watson said, a full-time INS person has been assigned to the Washoe County Detention Center north of town on Parr Boulevard.
"Last week was the first time we had him actually writing up people at the county jail," he said.
"Our plan is to give a 100 percent coverage to the county jail, checking any one who's incarcerated there to find out if they're here legally or illegally.
"We think we will probably pull quite a few illegal aliens from that."
Watson said Reno is his seventh duty station with the INS. Before coming here he was assigned to Laguna Niguel, south of Los Angeles.
Asked about all the innovative programs, he said, "I'd like to tell you that all these are my ideas, but most of them came from my staff.
"The only thing I can tell you is that we run an open-enough office so that people can come forward with new ideas.
"And if they sound good, we try 'em."


Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's front Page