Sanctuary City Illegal Immigrant Sparks $61M Fire In National Forest

Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos had been deported five times in just the past four years, yet each time he has managed to sneak from Mexico back into the U.S., where he ended up in more mischief: driving without a license, attempted burglary and felony weapons charges.

In August, he graduated to full-fledged mayhem, sparking a fire in the Sequoia National Forest that has already cost the government $61 million and left some of the country’s most beautiful landscape scarred for years to come.

Garcia, who pleaded guilty last month and faces 13 months in prison, had only recently been released from the Kern County Jail. He likely would have been deported again, but local authorities were unable to report him to immigration authorities because of California’s new sanctuary city law, which prohibited the sheriff from communicating with federal agents.

Federal agents now say they will kick Garcia out of the country once he serves his latest sentence, but the damage has already been done.

At a point along State Highway 155 through the Sequoia National Forest, the smell of cedar gives way to the stench of soot. Ash-blackened trees above and below the roadway show the path of the blaze.

Investigators determined that the spark came from a Nissan Maxima that Garcia was driving over a rough dirt trail near Cedar Creek. Garcia tried to drive over a berm and hit a tree. The hot muffler on his car ignited grass parched by years of drought, investigators said in an account filed in federal court.

Garcia has a long criminal record that includes auto theft, burglary and firearms charges. Nabbed last year after failing to appear in court to face felony charges, he was sentenced to more than a year in jail and was released for good behavior after serving 194 days.

In the past, Kern County would have reported him to federal immigration agents and his criminal record and repeated deportations would have made him a priority case. But California’s Trust Act, signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, put an end to that cooperation.

“We didn’t hold him because he did not meet the Trust Act,” Sheriff Youngblood said.

Now that he is in federal prison, ICE will have better luck when he is released upon completion of a 13-month sentence to which he agreed in his plea bargain.

But given his proficiency at sneaking back into the U.S., there is little sense that he will be deterred.

“We have to change the risk-cost-benefit equation,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “There are always going to be these multiple re-entry cases, and we should prosecute more of them, but at a certain point it is no longer a deterrent; that’s why we have to make it harder for them to get back in.”

She said families of repeat offenders in the country illegally could also be deported, removing the incentive for them to come back. Ms. Vaughan said targeting the smuggling operations that help sneak migrants into the U.S. would help.