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The story of Sarah Root, who Trump said was sacrificed ‘on the altar of open borders’

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, Donald Trump talked about the death of 21-year-old Sarah Root. (Video: The Washington Post)
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It was four in the morning on Jan. 31 when Scott Root received the call every parent dreads, summoning him to a hospital in Omaha, Neb., about an accident involving his 21-year-old daughter Sarah, but not telling him then, over the phone, just how dreadful it was.

“I thought we had to deal with a broken leg or a broken arm,” he would later say before a congressional committee. “I didn’t dare to think the worst.”

Only when he arrived was he informed of her condition. “Her spinal cord was snapped and her skull fractured in two places,” he said. Her chances of recovery, the neurosurgeon told him, were zero. Her face, he said, was swollen beyond recognition.

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He had been summoned not to comfort his daughter but to identify her.

“We identified her by her tattoo on her rib cage ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and a crucifix . … Her mother and I kept her on life support three days to allow organ recipients and their doctors to prepare themselves for harvesting.”

She had been out that night and morning celebrating her graduation from Bellevue University, near Omaha, with friends. As she stopped at a light in her white Oldsmobile Bravada SUV, a Chevy pickup driving at a high rate of speed slammed into her, ramming the SUV and sending it about 800 feet along the road, crushing it so badly that the rear and front of the car had become fused.

Police would later determine that the truck’s driver was street racing and drunk, according to the Des Moines Register. 

The driver of the pickup, identified by police as Eswin G. Mejia, was brought to the same hospital and then transferred to the Douglas County Jail. His blood alcohol content was 0.241, the Register reported, three times the legal limit. Later that day, he was charged with motor vehicular homicide.

Judge Jeffrey Marcuzzo set his bond at $50,000, meaning he had to post $5,000 to get out of jail, which a relative managed to do. He was released four days later. He was ordered back for mandatory drug screening on Feb. 8 but never showed. He disappeared and remains a fugitive sought by authorities to this day.

Sarah Root, declared Trump as he tore into Obama’s immigration policies, was “just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

Mejia was an illegal immigrant. But, in fact, the story is much more complex than Trump’s portrayal would suggest. Mejia did cross the border illegally in 2013 from Honduras. But the two newspapers that closely examined the case, the Des Moines Register and the Omaha World-Herald, found an overall system malfunction that only partly involved U.S. immigration officials. The judge who released Mejia, for example, appears not to have been informed of Mejia’s failure to show up for two prior court appearances, making him a potential flight risk.

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Trump’s broader data about open borders, the context for which he invoked the death of Root, was “cherry picked” according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and his rhetoric about illegal immigrants ordered deported who are “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” as Fact Checker said, is exaggerated at best and not supported by evidence, only anecdotes, as there is no documentation of the number of illegal immigrants committing crimes.

The young woman’s parents, however, have no doubt that the immigration system is in need of change. They have become activists for tightening the laws and regulations governing detention of illegal immigrant through a bill called “Sarah’s Law.” They issued a statement last night thanking Trump, something particularly noteworthy for the mother, Michelle Root, who has said she twice voted for Barack Obama for president.

Some of their ire about Mejia’s release is directed at the judge, and some at U.S. immigration officials and immigration law. Omaha police, according to the Register and the World-Herald, reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an effort to obtain a “detainer,” which could have kept Mejia’s in custody.

But police said the agency declined the detainer. An ICE spokesman told the Register that they declined because Mejia had not been convicted of a criminal charge. He was not, they would say, an “enforcement priority.”

And in May 2013, after he entered the country illegally at age 16, immigration authorities confirmed to the Register, he was stopped by the Border Patrol in Arizona but then placed with a brother in Tennessee while waiting for a deportation hearing. The family ultimately relocated to Nebraska.

Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, told the World-Herald that Mejia’s Jan. 31 arrest “’did not meet ICE’s enforcement priorities’ as stated in a November 2014 federal memo issued by Jeh C. Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. ‘Due to limited resources, DHS and its components (including ICE) cannot respond to all immigration violations or remove all persons illegally in the United States,’ Johnson wrote.”

“An individual from ICE looked at the specific facts and circumstances related to that matter,” ICE’s director, Sarah Saldaña, would later tell a congressional committee grilling her about that and other cases, and because “this individual had no criminal convictions, previous criminal convictions … made a determination based on his judgment that he did not need to be detained.”

Though he was listed in booking documents as an “alien,” according to the Register’s investigation, word that he was illegally in the country apparently did not reach the judge, who may or may not have taken it into account anyway as he set bond.

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In addition, it turned out that this was not the first brush with the law in Omaha for Mejia nor the first time he had skipped out on court-ordered appearances, which suggested he was a flight risk. He had been arrested by police in 2014 and 2015 for driving violations, including driving the wrong way on a one-way street and having no valid driver’s license, and had failed to appear in court as ordered for either charge, according to records examined by the World-Herald.

Given those facts, the family was furious that Mejia was released by the judge and is pursuing disciplinary action against him. According to the Register’s examination of court records, however, “no mention was made during the bond hearing about Mejia’s immigration status or that he had failed to appear at two previous court hearings.

“Donald W. Kleine, county attorney for Douglas County, told the Register that prosecutors weren’t aware that Mejia was in the country illegally.”

The death of his daughter and the release of Mejia sent Scott Root and his wife, Michelle, into a rage and on a personal crusade, as he would express it to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “to be the voice of my murdered daughter, Sarah Rae-Ann Root, murdered on Sunday, January 31st at approximately 2:00 AM by a drunk driver and illegal immigrant, Edwin G. Mejia.”

The family, which resides in Council Bluffs, Iowa, carried their cause to Iowa’s Republican Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst who, among others, would make the grieving parents’ cause their own.

And Michelle Root, according to Slate, would meet with Trump in Iowa in May where they discussed Sarah’s Law. The bill, among other things, would require ICE “to take custody of an individual who is in the country illegally and is charged with a crime resulting in the death or serious bodily injury of another person.”

Trump used the tragedy to attack the Obama administration in his speech Thursday night:

The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.
One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years old, and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law.
I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family. But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.

While Trump’s audience in Cleveland cheered in support, not everyone thought as much of using Sarah Root’s tragedy as a line in a partisan speech.

Slate’s headline called it the “most odious line” of the speech. “Merits of Sarah’s Law and the tragedy of her story aside, the way Trump’s speech uses her death is one of the greatest shames of this convention.”

But the Root family was grateful.

“We are very appreciative,” the family said in a statement after Trump’s acceptance speech, “that Mr. Trump is speaking of our daughter. He & his staff have been very compassionate about what we have been going through & have tried to help however they can.”