A world of both grace, disgrace is revealed in nun's death

As sisters of the Benedictine order gather in Bristow, Va., for a five-day retreat, a crash blamed on drunken driving kills one nun and critically injures two others, adding gravity and emotion to the event.
By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 8, 2010

We all knew the haters would froth when it turned out that the alleged drunk driver involved in a Prince William County crash that killed a nun was an illegal immigrant.

The marvel was the response of the victim's fellow sisters at the Benedictine convent in Bristow, near Manassas. It took them only a day to express forgiveness, and they did so directly to the driver's parents. They also pointedly urged the rest of the world not to exploit the tragedy for political purposes.

I'm in awe of the nuns' attitude of grace, but I'm not pious enough to follow their advice. The death of Sister Denise Mosier on Aug. 1 illustrates key issues in the immigration controversy so clearly that I feel compelled to write about it.

All sides in the immigration debate tried to use the dramatic details of the nun's death to push their own agendas. There are basically three contesting camps: Let's call them the demagogues, the whitewashers and the frustrated reformers.

The demagogues cited the incident partly to press for a new law in Virginia, similar to the controversial one in Arizona, to expand the police's power to identify illegal immigrants to be deported. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, proposed such a bill in June.

The whitewashers said the case isn't about illegal immigration at all, but about the need to combat drunken driving.

The frustrated reformers -- including me -- say the case certainly does implicate illegal immigration, but not necessarily the way demagogues say. The problem isn't that the police lack powers but that the immigration courts are so overwhelmed and poorly managed that they can't handle the deportation cases they already have.

The Bolivian immigrant charged with killing Mosier and severely injuring two other nuns should have been deported at least a year ago, if not earlier. He was convicted of drunken driving in 2007 and again in 2008.

But the immigration case was postponed three times. The reasons are now under investigation, but the delays are no surprise. For years, federal policy has focused too much on staging politically attractive raids and arrests and too little on the humdrum work of handling the resulting cases. As a result, the average wait in a deportation case is more than a year, and it regularly runs much longer.

"All of the resources have been put into rounding people up, and very few resources have been going into the hearing process," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "You've got this whole backlog, and no one has thought further than what looks good in the press releases."

Judges in the Justice Department's immigration division hear, on average, more than 1,000 cases a year, or about 20 mini-trials a week. The saying is that it's like a criminal court with a traffic court workload. Yet the number of judges continues to hover around 230, as it has for years. There's a severe shortage of clerks, too.

The other problem is a failure to set realistic priorities about which cases to handle first. At present, deportation cases are divided roughly evenly between those involving criminals and noncriminals. But why bother with noncriminals until we've dealt with all the criminals? It'd make more sense to speed up handling of, say, an accused drunk driver, even if it meant letting some folks continue to bus tables at a restaurant when they've overstayed their visas.

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