A U.S. Border Patrol agent accused of being an illegal alien and smuggling other illegals into the United States faces a bail hearing today in federal court in San Diego.
Oscar Antonio Ortiz, 28, a Mexican citizen born in Tijuana, is charged with using a fraudulent birth certificate to obtain a job with the agency in 2001 and alien smuggling. The numbered certificate claimed he was born in Chicago, although authorities have since discovered it belonged to a man born a month earlier.
Mr. Ortiz, who was assigned at the agency's El Cajon field station 35 miles east of San Diego, pleaded not guilty to the felony charges during a hearing Friday. He was ordered held until today's bail review before U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony J. Battaglia.
Law-enforcement authorities said Mr. Ortiz and another unidentified Border Patrol agent became the targets of an undercover investigation after they were overheard on intercepted telephone conversations discussing on "many occasions" the smuggling of migrants into the United States through a border area near Tecate, which they patrolled.
Transcripts from the intercepted calls show the unidentified agent told a family member in May that he and Mr. Ortiz smuggled several dozen people into the country and had been paid fees ranging from $300 to $2,000 a person.
The intercepted calls, authorities said, came during an investigation by the North County Regional Gang Task Force in San Diego into a suspected drug ring.
Mr. Ortiz was arrested Thursday in Escondido, Calif., by agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and placed on administrative leave.
Assisting in the arrest were Escondido police, the North County gang unit and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
"Any agent who defies the Border Patrol's motto of 'Honor First' and chooses to violate the trust of the citizens they swore to protect will be held accountable," Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar in Washington said. "There is no place in the Border Patrol for behavior that tarnishes and discredits the badge we proudly wear."
Mr. Ortiz's attorney, Stephen White, was not available yesterday for comment. If convicted, Mr. Ortiz could face up to 13 years in prison.
Border Patrol officials declined to discuss the case, although Assistant U.S. Attorney Alana Wong in San Diego told Judge Battaglia during Friday's hearing that Mr. Ortiz has resigned from the agency. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Ortiz should remain in jail until his case is decided.
Federal prosecutors have not identified the second agent or said whether that agent also faces charges. Authorities said the second agent also had been placed on administrative leave. T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 11,000 nonsupervisory Border Patrol agents, called the arrest "embarrassing," but described Mr. Ortiz and the unidentified second agent as "rogue agents."
"The overwhelming majority of the agents are out there risking their lives, enforcing immigration laws, doing a daunting and largely thankless task," said Mr. Bonner, a 28-year veteran of the agency.
Mr. Bonner said the FBI used to conduct background investigations on all Border Patrol applicants, but the job has since been turned over to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Currently, he said, some background checks are not being completed until the agents have been in the field for months.
"It's a two-minute phone call to verify whether the number (on the birth certificate) matches the name," Mr. Bonner said. "Any rookie who is trained in immigration law could have figured that out."
OPM officials in Washington referred inquiries on the background checks to a voice mailbox that was full. A second call was referred to an OPM office in Pennsylvania, where a spokeswoman directed further inquiries to the same voice mailbox.
Illegel aliens are often discovered at FLETC. The background check are commonly late in coming and sometimes not even started until agents are in the field.