For nearly two and a half years they've been in solitary confinement for their own safety. They will soon be released thanks to outgoing President George W. Bush's rare commutation of their ten year mandatory sentences.
Mr. Bush should have gone one step further and granted former U.S. Border Patrol Agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos complete presidential pardons.
They were convicted of a 2005 assault after they confronted a drug smuggler at the U.S.-Mexican border. There was a pursuit and as the drug dealer ran he was shot in the buttocks. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila wasn't killed or even grievously wounded. Later it was determined the Mexican born Aldrete-Davila had been unarmed. Interesting that he would attempt to cross the border with nearly 800 pounds of marijuana and not be armed, most smugglers are. The guards would testify they saw "something shiny" in the suspect's hand and genuinely feared for their lives.
Aldrete-Davila got free American medical attention and immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against the two agents. So he could help prepare the case against them he got a "humanitarian visa" which allowed him to come back and forth across the border legally. He also sued the United States for 5 million dollars for what he said was the agent's "violation of his civil rights." His best ammunition was that Compean and Ramos had lied to their supervisors about specific details of the confrontation.
Four months before the agent's trial was to begin guess who got picked up at the border trying to smuggle in a van load of drugs? Yep, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila. The jury in the case against the two agents never heard about the second smuggling attempt.
Federal prosecutors in Texas were adamant about pursuing this case and painted a portrait of Aldrete-Davila as a struggling one time offender. Also working against Ramos and Compean was the on-going struggle between pro-immigration and anti-immigration forces in the country. Both sides held up these two border guards as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the country's immigration policy.
The guards were found guilty and the charge carried a mandatory 10 year sentence because a gun was used in the commission of the assault. Of course, their job required them to carry guns and they were trained to use them if they felt their lives were in danger. Even though they both had clean work records their actual sentences were even harsher than the mandatory 10. Compean got 12 years, Ramos was sentenced to 11 years.
Within a matter of weeks they will be released from their solitary confinements to return to the loving arms of their anxious families. But they will breathe free air again stripped of some of the freedoms the rest of us have. Because Mr. Bush's last act of clemency was to grant them a commutation and not a full pardon they will live restricted lives. To borrow a phrase from former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, caught up in a government larceny scandal in 1987 and exonerated, "Where do these men go to get their lives back?" They certainly cannot return to their jobs or ever find federal employment again. Few employers want to hire ex-cons.
And there's an everlasting effect for the rest of us too. The signal sent to every other U.S. Border Patrol Agent is that if you face a sticky situation on the job the rights of the drug dealer, the illegal alien, the outsider who has chosen to break our laws to enter America may trump theirs.
Given that kind of handicap what kind of recruit will the U.S. Border Patrol attract now? Those who figure it is just a place to lay low, put in twenty years, and be guaranteed a federal pension? Will those brave men and women who selflessly put their lives on the line to keep the country safe even want to join now?
There's an ironic ending to this saga for the man who decided to try to bring massive quantities of drugs into America not once, but at least twice. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila is now a resident of a prison in El Paso, Texas. He's serving a 57 month consecutive sentence on charges of smuggling a ton of marijuana into the United States. Some people never learn.
Three years after that fateful confrontation in the desert it really comes down to one basic point. To whom do we give the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this - The bad guy or the guys who work every day trying to keep our country safe?
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site at www.dianedimond.net