Pete Flores, CBP’s San Diego director of field operations, walks with a group of U.S. military personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border fence. / Photo by David Maung

Almost every day, federal law enforcement agencies tout the work they’re doing patrolling the nation’s borders – including big arrests they’ve made.

Yet many high-profile cases they promote are ending quietly, and without anyone being convicted of a crime. Since the federal government began its aggressive crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border, known as zero tolerance, many of the people whose arrests were publicly trumpeted by law enforcement agencies continue dealing with the fallout of those accusations even after the cases against them fall apart.

The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that a jury found Mambasse Patara, a Marine veteran and a Los Angeles Police Department officer, not guilty after U.S. Border Patrol arrested him for human smuggling at a border checkpoint in southeastern San Diego last year.

“However, he remains on administrative leave from the LAPD. The agency declined to comment, pending an internal investigation,” the Times reports. “The experience, Patara said, has shaken his faith in the legal system — leaving him unsure if he can return to work as a police officer.”

Patara is not alone in experiencing negative consequences from an immigration arrest even after the case against him ended with no conviction.

Last year, after video of Border Patrol agents arresting a mother on a public street as her daughters looked on in horror sparked widespread outrage, the agency responded by charging that Perla Morales-Luna was “a human smuggling facilitator.”

Yet they never presented a criminal human smuggling case against Morales-Luna to prosecutors, as VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan reported. Instead, they simply moved to deport her.

The same goes for Francisco Duarte-Tineo and Rosenda Perez-Pelcastre. After the couple’s arrest in National City in 2017, Border Patrol made public statements accusing them of human smuggling, but never filed any charges against them.

Despite not being charged with a crime – let alone convicted of one – Morales-Luna’s arrest was brought up during her bond hearing in immigration court as a possible strike against her.

Earlier this year, U.S. prosecutors announced they were charging an asylum-seeking couple from El Salvador with human smuggling. That charge was especially unusual given that the couple wasn’t transporting anyone when they encountered border agents – they were alone in their car. Still, conservative news outlets seized on the press release touting the arrest.

But after the couple’s attorney raised several due process concerns about how the case was handled and discrepancies emerged in the various accounts of the arrest, prosecutors dropped the case.

Though the criminal case against them has ended, the problems it set off for the couple have not.

The wife remains in immigration detention, and her asylum case has now been split from her husband’s for unknown reasons, Srikrishnan reported last month: “That means that a family with the same asylum claim could end up with different outcomes. And while the charges against them were ultimately dismissed, the government can still bring them up as a reason to reject their asylum claims.”

In each of the cases, law enforcement officials either accused those arrested of, or actually charged them with, human smuggling.

It’s a broad enough charge that it can ensnare those like Patara, who was driving in a car with people who were not in the country legally, as well as people who send money to family members to use to cross the border illegally.

And it’s increasingly being used along the U.S.-Mexico border under zero tolerance.

An analysis by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica found “the number of human smuggling cases prosecuted along the border increased 25% during President Trump’s first two years in office, up from 4,319 in 2015 and 2016 to 5,420 in 2017 and 2018. The number of cases filed in California nearly doubled in that time.”

That surge has led to negative consequences even for those who aren’t being charged with crimes, including so-called material witnesses – people who have been smuggled into the United States but help prosecutors build cases against their smugglers.

“Some material witnesses have been kept in Border Patrol stations for weeks before they receive a first court hearing, as prosecutors and U.S. Marshals struggle to manage the surge in immigration prosecutions that began in the spring,” Srikrishnan reported last year. “That creates a perverse situation in which people who aren’t being charged with a crime are actually treated more harshly than those who are, attorneys say.”

The government has publicly touted – then quietly dropped – other immigration-related cases beyond human smuggling.

When a members of a migrant caravan arrived at the border last year, the Department of Justice announced the arrests of five caravan members on illegal entry charges – but ultimately dismissed some of those cases.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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