Jocelyn Nungaray death reignites immigration law debate

The death of 12-year-old Jocelyn Nungaray has prompted renewed debate over immigration laws and border policy nationwide.

FOX 26 discussed the intricacies of border law with an immigration attorney, shedding light on the complexities surrounding recent tragic events.

Houston police have arrested Johan Martinez, 22, and Franklin Pena, 26, both Venezuelan nationals and undocumented immigrants, now facing capital murder charges in connection with Nungaray's death.

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According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Martinez was detained by border patrol agents in El Paso on March 14 and released the same day. Similarly, Pena was apprehended and released on May 28.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire criticized the current immigration system, linking the suspects' release to the broader issue of border policy. "These individuals had been apprehended then released – that's a broken immigration system, and it leads to tragedies when you have a criminal element," Whitmire stated.

With calls for President Biden to address border law changes, the spotlight turns to Congress, the only body that can enact immigration reform. Whitmire urges, "We should insist that Congress and the administration come up with a fail-proof immigration system."

Alexis Lucero, an immigration defense attorney from El Paso, illustrated that the Department of Homeland Security employs two different protocols at the border. Lucero clarified, "Immigration or the Department of Homeland Security is actually implementing two different schemes of entries. Depending on if the person enters lawfully through a port of entry or if the person decides to enter in between ports of entry."

"Those persons will generally not be subject to a detention process if they enter legally through the CBP One app and do not have an immigration history, immigration violations, or a criminal record. People who claim fear are given a chance to present their case to an immigration judge later and are provided a humanitarian permit to enter the U.S. without detention," Lucero said.

However, Lucero notes that those caught entering illegally via the Rio Grande or desert face stricter repercussions, typically detainment and swift deportation. Exceptions occur if they successfully pass a credible fear interview or come from countries where the U.S. lacks diplomatic relations.

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"If immigration authorities detain people on the border, in the desert, or in the river that happen to be from countries where the United States has a strained diplomatic relation or no diplomatic relation, for example, Venezuela, Cuba, other places, immigration is in a situation where they can’t deport them to Mexico because Mexico has not agreed to actually take those nationals from those countries," Lucero said.

With Mexico not agreeing to take some nationals from certain countries, the burden falls back on the United States.

"We [the United States] can’t return them to their country of origin, so immigration gets stuck with them. In those circumstances, immigration decides to let those people out on an order of recognizance, and they’re given a notice to appear which actually initiates a removal process with the judge," Lucero said.

Everyone who comes to the U.S.-Mexico border, whether illegally or not, goes through what Lucero said is a robust background check based on internal policy that immigration has with other countries.

"Those are usually followed by biometrics through their fingerprints and that usually catches what a lot of people have in their background, either fraud issues, either past criminal history in their home countries, or prior immigration violations or criminal situations in the United States," Lucero said.

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Usually, that means that people who are released have no priors detected, but that doesn't mean they cannot commit offenses once in the United States.

"Whether they do something in the future that actually affects that process is something much more different that our criminal justice systems tend to catch on the other end," Lucero said.

Alexis Nungaray is the mother of Jocelyn and she told FOX 26 that something needs to change.

"At some point, it has to stop, this has to stop, we need to stop losing our kids. We have to raise awareness for parents. Please be extra careful with your kids," Nungaray said.

As for what she would like to see be done with the two suspects, Alexis told FOX 26 she believes in divine justice and hopes that the criminal justice system gets it right. 

"[I hope] that they receive worse than what my daughter did. She deserves to live and breathe, every single day," Nungaray said.