An illegal immigrant awaiting a deportation ruling has been charged with killing a nun and critically injuring two others in a drunken driving crash that has sparked criticism of how immigration enforcement is handled.
A local official in the Virginia suburb where the crash happened and a congressman from another state have criticized federal officials for not removing the suspect from the country after previous arrests, and even U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano questioned why his deportation was taking so long. A spokeswoman for the nuns' order, meanwhile, said they're upset that the tragedy is being politicized.
Twenty-three-year-old Carlos Martinelly Montano, who police say is illegally in the country, is charged with drunken driving, involuntary manslaughter and felony driving on a revoked license after the accident on Sunday in Virginia's Prince William County.
Montano's car crossed a median Sunday morning when it hit the car carrying three nuns, police said. Sixty-six-year-old Sister Denise Mosier was pronounced dead on the scene, and two other nuns — Sister Charlotte Lange and Sister Connie Ruth Lupton — were critically injured and remained in a hospital on respirators Tuesday, according to Smith.
It wasn't clear from jail records if Montano had an attorney.
Montano was arrested two times before and charged with drunken driving, according to county police, and has also been arrested in separate incidents for other traffic-related offenses. Police say Montano, who is from Bolivia, was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement after at least one arrest, and a prosecutor said he knew of at least one other occasion he'd been referred to immigration officials.
The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that Montano was released in 2008, pending an immigration judge's review of his case. As of August 2010, a judge had not ruled on his deportation.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the crash a "terrible thing" when asked about the incident during an unrelated news conference at D.C. police headquarters Tuesday. Napolitano said she immediately asked officials to look into the situation.
"This is a horrible case," said Napolitano, whose department includes ICE. "Why is it that this individual was still out driving? He was in removal proceedings. Why were the removal proceedings taking so long?"
Prince William County's top elected leader and a Kentucky congressman, both Republicans, criticized federal immigration officials for not deporting Montano.
"As the facts surrounding this tragic case continue to come to light, I think it demonstrates the need for ICE to be more efficient and effective in their deportation duties," Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers said in an e-mailed statement.
Corey Stewart, the chairman of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors, says the accident highlights the need for federal immigration reform. Stewart championed and implemented one of the nation's strictest county-level anti-illegal immigration policies. The local law requires that police inquire about the immigration status of all people arrested on suspicion of violating a state or local law. He says it's "extremely frustrating" that even with the county's policy, not all those turned over to ICE are removed from the country.
"We handed him over to the feds assuming he would be deported, but instead federal authorities released him back into the neighborhood and he killed a nun," Stewart said. "We feel like we are beating our heads against the wall."
A Catholic nun and spokeswoman for the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia says sisters of the three nuns involved in the accident have always stayed out of the debate over immigration. Sister Glenna Smith says the Catholic nuns have always provided social services — including adult literacy courses and counseling — regardless of immigration status, and they are upset the tragedy has become fodder for policy debate.
"The Benedictine Sisters are dismayed and saddened that this tragedy has been politicized and become an apparent forum for the illegal immigration agenda," Smith said. "It is not optional for us to choose mercy and forgiveness. We know this young man will be brought to justice, that's appropriate, and we hope he will learn to make better choices."