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Minnesota's 'Sanctuary City' Murder

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The killing of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, California, allegedly by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant, has many focusing on the "sanctuary city" policy that many U.S. cities have adopted. But the real focus shouldn't be on sanctuary cities, it should be on what happens to illegal immigrants after they commit a crime.

In Minnesota the cities of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Austin have similar "sanctuary" policies, according to civil rights advocacy organization Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC. This group also lists the city of Worthington, Minnesota, which city officials say is incorrect.

The policies basically prohibit city and county employees from aiding immigration authorities with investigations or arrests unless it is required by law or there is an active arrest warrant.

It also allows undocumented immigrants living in those cities the ability to contact law enforcement without fear of deportation.

"In Minneapolis-St. Paul, basically what they have said, and they've said it for many years ... is that the job of the local police departments ... is to go after criminals regardless of their immigration status," said John Keller, the executive director of Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

In the Steinle murder, Lopez-Sanchez had been deported five times but kept returning to San Francisco.

In the Twin Cities, 29-year-old Edson Celin Benitez, of St. Paul, and 35-year-old Reinol Godines Vergara, of Richfield, were both arrested last May for the April murder of 90-year-old Earl Arthur Olander in the San Francisco Township.

Olander's family tried reaching him for several days. Then on Saturday, April 11, a neighbor went to check on him and found him dead on the living room floor of his farmhouse in Carver County.

Olander's hands were tied, and he had been brutally attacked and his home ransacked.

More than a month later, a tip led law enforcement to Vergara and Benitez.

Vergara had previously painted Olander's house and shed. He told investigators the 90-year-old was an easy target because he lived alone and had money.

The men are facing second-degree murder charges and are sitting in the Carver County Jail in Chaska. Their bail has been set at $1.5 million.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have placed detainers on the men which could mean they're suspected illegal immigrants, according to the Star Tribune.

Benitez lived in St. Paul, a sanctuary city, where police wouldn't question his legal status. In Hennepin County, he committed multiple crimes; Vergara only a few.

Vergara: Assault, 11-17-2009; DWI, 12-30-14.
Benitez: Narcotics 8-09-04; Hit & Run 4-08-07, Diving Without a Valid-DL 8-13-2007; Burglary 3-13-14; Narcotics 8-30-14.

When Benitez was arrested for burglary in March of 2014, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office contacted ICE after the FBI got a hit off his finger prints and photo.

"ICE did take custody of Benitez," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. "The disposition of Benitez after that incident, in turning him over to ICE, we are not privy to."

It's unclear if ICE released Benitez or deported him in March of 2014. What is clear is that he was arrested again on August 30 for possession of narcotics and was later released on his own.

WCCO Radio contacted ICE about Benitez and asked if the agency could confirm if he's an undocumented immigrant and if he was deported back in March of 2014, when they took custody of him.

ICE has yet to reply, but the agency issued statement that reads, in part:

"The Department of Homeland Security is in the process of implementing a new initiative called the Priority Enforcement Program - PEP for short - which supports community policing while ensuring ICE takes custody of dangerous criminals before they are released into the community. ICE is now issuing detainers and requests for notification with respect to individuals who meet our heightened enforcement priorities under PEP to ensure individuals who pose a threat to public safety are not released from prisons or jails into our communities."

A memo released by the Department of Homeland Security on November 20, 2014, lists new policies for the apprehension, detention, and removal of aliens in this country. It says, "This memorandum should be considered Department-wide guidance, applicable to the activities of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)."

It basically says Benitez's crimes before the alleged murder of Olander would fall under the category of second-highest priority. But the killing of Olander moved him up to highest priority.

After Benitez and Vergara were caught, Olander's family talked with reporters.

"Now that these two men have been charged, hopefully our family can get some closure," said Mary Rothfusz, Olander's niece.

"It is essentially the worst nightmare for ICE and the residents of our country," Stanek said. "He [Benitez] shows up several months later murdering an elderly man in a neighboring county. That's not a good thing and someone has to answer for that."

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