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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Killing of Texas girl becomes a new immigration flashpoint



The I-10/I-45 junction north of downtown Houston, Dec. 14, 2022. Two recent Venezuelan migrants have been arrested and charged with killing 12-year-old Jocelyn Nungaray, whose body was found last week in the shallow water of a city drainage ditch after she was strangled to death under a bridge in North Houston near Interstate 45. (Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)

By J. David Goodman


The killing of a 12-year-old Houston girl, found last week in the shallow water of a city drainage ditch after having been strangled, was already a horrific crime.


“It doesn’t get any worse,” the city’s mayor, John Whitmire, said.


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


Suddenly the killing, which had ripped apart a Houston family, became the latest flashpoint in the debate over immigration, seized on by Republicans and immigration opponents who drew a direct line between the crime and President Joe Biden’s policies at the border.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged the death penalty for the men charged in the killing, adding that Jocelyn “would be alive today if Biden enforced immigration laws at the border.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agreed. So did former President Donald Trump.


Trump invoked Jocelyn’s name in a speech in Washington over the weekend, suggesting that 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,” Trump said. “We had a strong border, we had strong protection.”


Jocelyn joined a list of victims of violence whose names have become familiar in conservative media and among Republicans 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 jogging in Maryland.


“My heart aches for these women and their families and loved ones,” Rep. Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., who is chair 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 men charged in the case in a statement about the killing. “Anyone found guilty of this type of heinous and shocking crime should be held accountable, to the fullest extent of the law,” it said.


As the number of migrants crossing the border with Mexico reached record levels, including more than 2.5 million encounters last year, before the latest downturn, Republicans have frequently highlighted the most serious crimes committed by migrants who entered undetected or who were detained but allowed to remain in the United States while their asylum or removal cases proceeded.


Even in Democratic-led 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 “migrant crime wave.”


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


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


The two men in the recent Houston case, accused of killing the 12-year-old girl and leaving her bound and without pants in a drainage ditch, were identified as Johan Jose Martinez-Rangel, 22, and Franklin Pena, 26, according to court filings. 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 spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the two men had each crossed illegally into the country without being detected, and that it was not known where or when they had entered.


Martinez-Rangel was detained by Border Patrol agents on March 14 near El Paso. A little more than two months later, Pena was also apprehended by border agents in El Paso. According to the statement, both men were released pending a later immigration hearing. (The immigration agency gave Pena’s name as Franklin Jose Pena Ramos.)


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


Lawyers assigned to 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 sort of person who “definitely made people laugh.”


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


The killing took place in the early hours of June 17 under a bridge in North Houston near Interstate 45. Hours before, the men had been drinking heavily, investigators said; Jocelyn had sneaked out of her home to call her 13-year-old boyfriend. The men later encountered her on the street.


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


The Harris County district attorney, Kim Ogg, said in an interview on Fox News that “the evidence is clear that a sexual assault likely happened” but that prosecutors were still awaiting the results of forensic testing.


Under Texas law, prosecutors in this case could seek the death penalty if the killing had been committed in the course of another felony, such as a sexual assault or a kidnapping. Ogg said that investigators were looking at additional evidence that would allow them to elevate the charges.

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