People in a caravan of Central American migrants walk to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing. Prosecutors recently dropped the case against Morena Elizabeth Mendoza-Romaldo, a member of the caravan who was charged with illegal entry./ Photo by David Maung

On Wednesday, U.S. prosecutors dismissed another misdemeanor case involving someone accused of crossing the border illegally.

This time it was the case of Morena Elizabeth Mendoza-Romaldo, a citizen of El Salvador, who was arrested on April 27. The government decided to dismiss the case on the morning it was set to go to trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lasater told Judge Ruben Brooks that on Tuesday, as prosecutors were getting their sole witness in the case ready – the Border Patrol agent who arrested Mendoza-Romaldo – they came across some issues involving the arrest report.

“The decision was made not to go forward,” Lasater told Brooks.

Mendoza-Romaldo was arrested in a group of seven people about four miles west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry and 50 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the complaint against her. She was separated from her 12-year-old son upon her arrest.

Lasater also said that since Mendoza-Romaldo’s case was one in which a mother and child had been separated, the government wanted to “make every effort” to reunite them promptly, which would be more difficult if she was criminally prosecuted.

On Tuesday, San Diego-based federal Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government stop separating families and reunite within 30 days those who had been separated.

Mendoza-Romaldo was one of several individuals the Department of Justice said were part of a migrant caravan that arrived to the Tijuana-San Diego border in April. It touted their arrest and prosecution in a press release on May 1.

Four others who were part of the caravan have trials set for July.

Mendoza-Romaldo is already in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is pursuing an asylum claim. She has passed a credible fear interview, the initial screening in which U.S. officials review an individual’s claim that he or she fears returning to their home country before their case can be presented to an immigration judge.

The first illegal entry misdemeanor case that went to trial in San Diego since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his “zero tolerance” approach to border crossings in April was also dismissed, after dispatch tapes revealed that the defendant had been detained without being briefed on his rights for much longer than a Border Patrol agent had testified.

Another illegal entry misdemeanor case was dismissed Thursday – also on the morning of the defendant’s trial.

Nearly all of the migrants charged with illegal entry misdemeanors have pleaded guilty. That usually results in a “time-served” sentence – unless an individual had a criminal history or prior deportations – meaning defendants are typically released after a guilty plea.

Many see pleading guilty as a way to expedite their release from custody – particularly if they’ve been separated from their child – though many are then transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention for deportation or to await immigration proceedings. Many don’t want to take the chance to try their cases if it means spending more time in jail.

But having a criminal conviction on their record – even a misdemeanor – can hurt migrants’ chances of later obtaining legal status in the United States.

At least 50 illegal entry misdemeanor cases have been dismissed since the “zero-tolerance” policy went into effect – many because of issues getting detainees to court in time for their hearings, the Union-Tribune has reported.

The dismissed cases are a mere fraction of the more than 1,000 misdemeanor cases that have been brought in federal court in San Diego since the zero-tolerance policy went into effect, but they further demonstrate the strain the cases are putting on the court system.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.