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Green cards for smuggler snitches?

June 24, 2003, 10:11PM

Proposed bill touts bounties

House measure targets smugglers

By MICHAEL HEDGES Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Kingpins of major immigrant smuggling rings would be treated like terrorists and organized crime dons with rewards of up to $100,000 on their heads under a bill a Houston lawmaker is scheduled to introduce later this week.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the ranking Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, said her bill also would allow people who helped in the arrest and prosecution of major figures in the immigrant smuggling underworld to gain permanent resident status in the United States.

"Adjustment of status (to that of legal permanent resident) could also be offered to the spouse, married and unmarried sons and daughters, and parents of the alien," Jackson Lee said Tuesday, describing the measure at a House subcommittee hearing on illegal immigrant smuggling.

The bill, which Jackson Lee said she planned to introduce this week, also would allow some informants entry into witness protection programs used to hide those who snitch on mob bosses and drug cartel heads.

Also, federal judges would be allowed to increase penalties for human smuggling by up to 10 extra years in cases where more than 10 undocumented immigrants were smuggled, and either the immigrants' lives were endangered or those smuggled into the country presented "a life-threatening health risk to the people of the United States," Jackson Lee said.

Tuesday's hearing was designed to explore ways to stop the type of immigrant smuggling along the southwest U.S. border that led to the deaths of 19 people last month after they were locked in a tractor trailer that was abandoned near Victoria. But the hearing swiftly broadened into a more general debate on the issue of illegal immigration.

Maria Jimenez, chair of Houston Mayor Lee Brown's advisory committee on immigrants and refugees, told the congressional panel that a combination of making legal immigration easier and getting tougher on smugglers was key to avoiding tragedies like Victoria.

Jimenez cited the concerns that keep illegal immigrants from coming forward to expose smugglers: fears of deportation and of retribution exacted against families back home.

According to Jimenez, a deadly incident in Victoria in 2000 -- three men succumbed to dehydration after riding in a locked boxcar -- did not motivate people to expose the smugglers, or even discourage immigrants from contracting with the same smugglers to help them across the border.

"They feared coming forward, they feared for their safety and for the families back home. Others acted to protect the smuggler from prosecution," she said.

In Jackson Lee's testimony before the committee, the congresswoman did not detail the size of potential rewards for those informing on top smugglers. But a staff aide said the legislation she will propose is modeled on, and would have the same reward structure as, existing laws that allow up to $100,000 for information for terrorist arrests. That amount could be increased by direct approval of the secretary of state or the head of the Department of Homeland Security.

Republicans in the majority on the committee expressed concerns that some of the Jackson Lee proposals could backfire.

Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said he hoped to work with Jackson Lee on an anti-smuggling bill, but cited testimony by law enforcement experts that incentives can be counter-productive.

"Would this allow defense attorneys to say this witness has been prejudiced by the offer of money and legal status?" Hostettler said. "There is also a concern that people might be willing to say anything to get that prize (of permanent legal status.)"

Hostettler noted programs are in place that prosecutors could use to get a resident visa for an illegal immigrant who was judged to be an important witness in a major investigation.

Republicans on the subcommittee also were openly skeptical of amnesty programs for the 7 million to 10 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States, and guest worker programs that could allow some in the country illegally to move toward a permanent resident status.

"We have got to stop dangling the carrot of amnesty or guest worker programs in front of people who enter the country illegally," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif. h