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Columnist
Commutation was on Bush's terms
By Rueben Navarrette | Columnist
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Published: 1/24/2009 11:07 PM

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I was glad to see that George W. Bush commuted the prison sentences of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. And frankly, I was a bit surprised I was glad.

I never had much sympathy for Ramos or Compean, disgraced law enforcement officers convicted of shooting a Mexican drug smuggler and lying about it. From studying the facts, hearing the arguments of the agents' supporters, and interviewing U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office tried the case, I'm convinced the pair broke the law and that they were justly convicted and sentenced. Ramos received 11 years and Compean got 12. Both will be released on March 20.

Bush was also convinced that the men were guilty. That's why he didn't pardon them.

Meanwhile, those who want to defend the agents have to ignore the law and several inconvenient facts. Ramos and Compean said in media interviews that the smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, had a gun, but they never mentioned the weapon in their official reports or to fellow agents who arrived on the scene; Compean fired off 14 rounds from an elevated position, which would have left him vulnerable if Aldrete-Davila had a gun. The jury heard from Ramos, Compean and Aldrete-Davila and found the drug smuggler more believable than the agents.

In a stunning display of situational ethics, Ramos and Compean became instant superheroes to anti-immigration activists. This crowd turned a wrongful shooting and attempts to hide it by disposing of evidence into a cause celebre. For the activists - some of whom also want to end legal immigration from Latin America and Asia because what worries them are demographic projections that whites will soon be in the minority - the world is simple: The country is being invaded, and it's the job of Border Patrol agents to stop the invasion. Ergo, these agents deserve carte blanche to do as they please even if it violates law.

The narrative of poor, defenseless Border Patrol agents victimized by politics and railroaded into prison was a convenient fantasy. Afraid of the cultural footprint left by immigrants, anti-illegal immigration activists feel they're losing control of their country. Pushing for the release of Ramos and Compean was a way to get it back.

The facts were never in doubt. On Feb. 17, 2005, Ramos and Compean were on patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border near Fabens, Texas, when they spotted a van. When they approached, they discovered Aldrete-Davila, who ran toward the Mexican side of the border. The agents opened fire. Aldrete-Davila was hit, but he got away. No gun was found but the van was loaded with marijuana. Aldrete-Davila was located and the agents were prosecuted - to the chagrin of congressional Republicans, border vigilantes and right-wing talk-show hosts.

The reason I'm glad that Bush commuted the agents' sentences is that the president did it on his own terms and within his own time frame. He didn't give in to the bullying by anti-illegal immigration forces or members of his own party. He didn't offer the commutation for his own political benefit but instead chose to offer it at the end of his presidency.

Besides, Bush could have gone all the way and offered a full pardon, as activists were demanding. Instead, he settled on a commutation because he wanted to make clear that, according to an administration official, "commuting (the agents') sentences does not diminish the seriousness of their crimes." And yet, the official said, Bush felt that "they and their families have suffered enough for their crimes."

I'll second that. Now if only we could say the same about those who shamefully tried to use this unfortunate tale to further their own agendas.

© 2009, The San Diego Union-Tribune