RALEIGH — Alejandro Ramirez-Castaneda has been deported from the United States three times since 2008. But he managed to make it back to Raleigh, where police say he was driving drunk when he got into an accident this month that severely injured the other driver.
Its the fifth time Ramirez-Castaneda, 25, has been charged with a crime in Wake County, dating back to 2007. Once the case has worked its way through the legal system and he serves his sentence, if any, Ramirez-Castaneda will be sent back to Mexico again, immigration officials say.
The arrest of Ramirez-Castaneda comes as President Obama and U.S. Senators from both parties propose separate plans for reforming the countrys immigration system. Both seek to create paths to citizenship for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants. But the Senate plan in particular stresses the need to improve border security with more agents and increased use of drones and other surveillance equipment, to make it more difficult for people like Ramirez-Castaneda to keep crossing into the country illegally.
The accident took place on Jan. 20, as Ramirez-Castanedas SUV crossed the center line on Garner Road and hit another vehicle head-on, according to Raleigh police. He ran before officers arrived, police say, and was arrested later and charged with driving while impaired, resisting a public officer, felony serious injury by vehicle and felony hit and run.
Despite his previous arrests, Ramirez-Castaneda has not been prosecuted for the local charges that led to his deportations, dating back to 2008. Wake County District Attorney Colin Willoughby said he did not recall his offices involvement with Ramirez-Castaneda. But he said because he had been charged with minor or misdemeanor offenses, including DWI and assault, prosecutors probably determined it was better to get him out of the country so he cant do anymore harm.
If he had been charged with a sexual assault, armed robbery or even breaking into a house, then we may have tried to convict him before he got deported, Willoughby said. But for minor offenses and misdemeanors, we probably agreed to let immigration take precedence rather than let him stay in jail a month or two or be out walking the street.
Now Willoughbys office has reinstated some of those charges, including the original assault charge that led to his first deportation.
Ramirez-Castaneda is being held in the Wake County jail under a $504,000 bail, according to a jail spokesman.
Before his arrest, Ramirez-Castaneda lived at a red brick, working-class apartment complex on New Hope Church Road in northeast Raleigh. The excited voices of small children inside could be heard when a News & Observer reporter visited the home this week.
Who is it? asked one of the children.
A woman peered through the white blinds of the apartments front window and indicated she had nothing to say.
Ramirez-Castaneda is represented by Cary defense lawyer Lindsey Granados, who declined to say why Ramirez-Castaneda kept returning to the country. She would only say that he has not been convicted of any of the recent charges filed against him and that he is entitled to equal protection under the law, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
I will make sure the facts are presented before the court and advocate on his behalf, Granados said. His fate will be determined by the rule of law.
History of criminal charges
Its not clear when Ramirez-Castaneda arrived in Wake County, but his troubles with the law here began on Aug. 19, 2007, when a Raleigh patrol officer found him asleep behind the wheel of a car at 6:12 a.m. The officer charged Ramirez-Castaneda with DWI and carrying a concealed weapon. More than four months later, he was charged with failure to appear in court and driving without a license.
But none of those charges brought him to the attention of immigration officials, not even after he was convicted of DWI in February 2008.
It wasnt until Sept. 20, 2008, when Raleigh police charged him with assault on a female that someone in the Wake County jail notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that Ramirez-Castaneda might be in the country illegally. A little more than a month later, federal officials drove him to the border crossing at Hidalgo, Texas, and walked him across the Rio Grande River to Reynosa, Mexico, said Vincent Picard, an immigration spokesman in Atlanta.
Less than a year later, in August 2009, federal agents patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border nabbed Ramirez-Castaneda in the desert as he was trying to return to the United States. From Nogales, Ariz., he was walked back into Nogales, Mexico, on Sept. 8, 2009, Picard said.
But Ramirez-Castaneda managed to end up back in Raleigh. On Oct. 24, 2011, Raleigh police charged him with driving while impaired, resisting a public officer, and hit and run. Police accused Ramirez-Castaneda of lying by saying his name was Alfredo James Tells, court records show.
A little less than a month later, Ramirez-Castaneda was again deported at Hidalgo, Texas, Picard said.
Police did not encounter Ramirez-Castaneda again until the accident on Garner Road this month. A witness told investigators that his SUV hit a light truck driven by Joseph Paul Johnson of Garner around 7:45 a.m.
Johnson, 46, told Raleigh police officer R.A. Gordon that he saw Ramirez-Castaneda fleeing after the accident. When police caught up with him, they determined Ramirez-Castaneda had a blood alcohol content of .13, nearly twice the legal limit of .08.
Johnson had a broken hip, internal bleeding and a bleeding lung. He remains hospitalized at WakeMed in fair condition, a hospital spokesman said Wednesday.
Picard, the immigration agency spokesman, said immigration authorities could charge Ramirez-Castaneda with felony re-entry into the United States. He said federal authorities dont do that for every case because the probable large number of arrests would overwhelm the court system.
We tend to focus our resources on people who commit violent crimes and then re-enter the country, he said. Felony hit and run with injury is definitely someone we are going to be taking a look at. The charges in this case are similar to the cases we would consider for prosecution.
Picard said Ramirez-Castaneda could spend up to 20 years in prison if convicted of felony re-entry.
Its very rare for someone to get 20 years. Thats usually reserved for violent criminals, Picard said. But if he keeps coming back, its going to get more and more painful.
News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.