Murder of Texas girl becomes new immigration hotspot

The murder of a 12-year-old Houston girl, found last week in the shallow waters of a city drainage ditch after being strangled, was already a horrific crime.

“There’s nothing worse,” said the city’s mayor, John Whitmire.

Then, investigators arrested two recent Venezuelan migrants and charged them with the murder of the girl, Jocelyn Nungaray. The second of the two appeared in court on Tuesday; both were being held on $10 million bail.

Suddenly, the murder, which tore a Houston family apart, became the latest flash point in the immigration debate, seized upon by Republicans and immigration opponents who drew a direct line between the crime and the politics of the President Biden at the border.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for the death penalty for the men charged with the murder, adding that Jocelyn “would be alive today if Biden had enforced immigration laws at the border.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas agreed. So did former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Trump invoked Jocelyn’s name in a speech in Washington this weekend, suggesting the killing could resurface during Thursday’s presidential debate, which is expected to include immigration as a central topic.

“These monsters should never have been in our country and if I were president, they would not have been in our country,” Mr. Trump said. “We had a strong border, we had strong protection.”

Jocelyn joined a list of abuse victims whose names became familiar in conservative media and among Republican lawmakers because their alleged attackers had recently entered the country without authorization. They include Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student killed in a Georgia park in February, and Rachel Morin, 37, who authorities say was raped and killed last year while that she was jogging in Maryland.

“My heart aches for these women, their families and loved ones,” Rep. Mark E. Green, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “These tragedies could have been avoided.”

A White House spokesperson did not address the immigration status of the the men accused in the case in a statement about the murder. “Anyone found guilty of this type of heinous and shocking crime must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

As the number of migrants crossing the border with Mexico has reached record levels, with more than 2.5 million encounters last year, before the last recession, Republicans have frequently highlighted the most serious crimes committed by migrants entered undetected or detained but allowed to stay. in the United States while their asylum or deportation case was pending.

Even in Democratic-run New York City, police officials this year suggested that the arrival of large numbers of migrants, including on buses paid for by Texas, had created a “crime wave among migrants.

But despite a number of high-profile cases, studies have shown that migrants commit fewer crimes than legal residents.

“Texas is not threatened by what’s happening at the border,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Texas Democratic political organization. “For them, it’s a performance,” he said of Mr. Abbott and other Republicans’ comments on the Houston affair. “These guys don’t care about this 12-year-old or any other 12-year-old. If this young woman were raped, they would force her to endure the pregnancy and carry the rapist’s child.

The two men in the recent Houston case, accused of killing the 12-year-old girl and leaving her tied up and pantsless in a drainage ditch, have been identified as Johan Jose Martinez-Rangel, 22 , and Franklin Pena, 26, according to court records. They were arrested last week at an apartment where they were both staying in Houston, the city’s acting police chief, Larry Satterwhite, said at a news conference.

In a statement, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said the two men entered the country illegally undetected, and it was unclear where or when they entered. .

Mr. Martinez-Rangel was arrested by Border Patrol agents on March 14 near El Paso. A little more than two months later, Mr. Pena was also apprehended by border agents in El Paso. Both men were released pending a subsequent immigration hearing, according to the release. (The immigration agency gave Mr. Pena the name Franklin Jose Pena Ramos.)

Daniel Werlinger, one of two defense lawyers appointed to represent Mr. Pena, described his client as “remorseful,” saying he “understands the gravity of the situation” in which he finds himself.

Lawyers assigned to Mr. Martinez-Rangel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alexis Nungaray, 27, Jocelyn’s mother, spoke briefly at a news conference Monday, describing her daughter as “amazing” and the kind of person who “definitely made people laugh.”

“I still see his face in the back of my head all day, every day,” Ms Nungaray said. “She had such a bright future ahead of her.”

The killings occurred in the early hours of June 17, under a bridge in North Houston near Interstate 45. Hours earlier, the men had been drinking heavily, investigators said; Jocelyn had snuck out of her home to call her 13-year-old boyfriend. The men later met her on the street.

In their court filings, prosecutors said the two men “lured” the girl under the bridge where, over the course of two hours, they “took off her pants, tied her up and killed her, then dumped his body in the bayou. Both were charged with capital murder.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in an interview on Fox News that “the evidence is clear that a sexual assault likely occurred” but that prosecutors were still awaiting the results of forensic tests.

Under Texas law, prosecutors in the case could seek the death penalty if the killing was committed as part of another crime, such as sexual assault or kidnapping. Ms Ogg said investigators were examining additional evidence that would allow them to pursue charges.

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