WASHINGTON — In Arizona, the shooting death of a rancher blew the lid off simmering anger over border security and helped solidify support for a tough new immigration law. A similar eruption threatens in Virginia following the death of a Catholic nun in a car accident involving a man in the country illegally and accused of drunken driving.
The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia tried to discourage using the death of Sister Denise Mosier as a "forum of the illegal immigration agenda" and pleaded for a focus on "Christ's command to forgive."
"The sisters' mission is peace and love," said Corey Stewart, chairman of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors. "My mission is law enforcement and the protection of public safety."
Prince William County, about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., stepped up its immigration enforcement in 2007 amid explosive growth of its Hispanic and immigrant populations. Under Stewart's leadership, the county implemented a local policy requiring police to determine the immigration status of all people arrested on suspicion of violating state or local laws.
Stewart rushed back into the immigration debate after the Aug. 1 accident, firing off a statement that President Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and members of Congress "all have blood on their hands."
"What I'm hoping is that this situation, which because it involves a nun has drawn the nation's attention, can serve as a catalyst for change and force the administration to come clean about its catch-and-release policies," Stewart said. He also says that the tragedy illustrates the need for Virginia to toughen its drunken-driving laws.
Even though Stewart says he's not running for higher office now, he is seen as a possible lieutenant governor candidate in three years. "Regardless of what he says, there is no question people would be interested in seeing him move up within the Republican Party," said Stephen Farnsworth, an assistant communications professor at George Mason University.
The day after the crash, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II issued an advisory opinion concluding that police have authority to inquire into the immigration status of any person stopped or arrested, similar to the Arizona immigration law that is under federal court review.
Arizona passed the law after rancher Robert Krentz was fatally shot while checking water lines on his property near the Arizona-Mexico border. Authorities believe a scout for drug smugglers is to blame, although an investigation continues.
The sisters at the Bristow, Va., monastery have buried Mosier, who would have turned 67 on Aug. 26. Two other nuns injured in the crash, Charlotte Lange and Connie Ruth Lupton, have undergone surgery and remain in critical condition.
The man charged in the case, Carlos A. Martinelly Montano, 23, of Bolivia, had two prior drunken driving convictions, but was not required to serve any of his 30-day sentence for the first one. A Prince William County judge required Montano to serve only 20 days of his approximately one-year sentence on his second conviction.
Local officials turned him over to federal immigration enforcement officers after the second incident and after sentencing, but federal officers released him both times while he awaited hearings.
Montano is being held at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center, and the county's prosecutor is promising to ask a grand jury to consider charges that could put him in prison for 40 years.
Montano entered the U.S. illegally with his parents and siblings, his uncle Luis Ronald Montano told the Associated Press. He attended American schools in New Jersey and Virginia from third grade through high school. He is engaged and is the father of two boys, ages 1 and 2, who were born in Manassas, Va.
For a few years, the family had asked Montano, a T-shirt screenprinter, to seek professional help for his alcoholism. His family took away his cars, but he had taken his mother's Subaru at the time of the crash.
Luis Ronald Montano said the family understands Carlos has broken the law several times. They worry about the future of his two young sons. They expect he will be deported, but they have hired lawyers in hopes of keeping him here with minimum jail time.
"He's getting used to crucify all the illegal aliens in the United States," his uncle said.
The nuns have forgiven Montano. Mercy and forgiveness, the nuns say on their web site, are not optional for Christians.
Nearly half of the 292,663 people deported or removed by ICE through July 22 of this year were considered criminals. In 2009, 35 percent, or 136,343, of all those deported were criminals, a reflection of ICE's focus on deporting people with criminal records.
Removals of non-citizens who are not criminals are below what they were at the same time last year, which has become fodder for criticism of the Obama administration.
The Benedictine Sisters operate several ministries, including providing transitional housing for homeless women and their children and an adult literacy project. None solely targets illegal immigrants, Smith said in an e-mail, and the services are available to everyone.
The Rule of Benedict and the Gospel of Jesus Christ "compels us to reach out to the neighbor and the stranger, to the rich and the poor, to all who may come to our door," Smith said. "I might add that Sister Denise was a model for us in this reaching out and acceptance of diverse persons and cultures."