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Open Season

March 11 2002

James Saunders will never meet the man for whom he is named. He is only three now - born after his policeman father was gunned down in the line of duty.

It began as a routine traffic stop on an unremarkable day. Just after 9 PM at an intersection in downtown Kennewick, Washington, State Trooper Jim Saunders pulled over a green Mazda pick-up. Colleagues would later recall that the seven-year patrol veteran "Wasn't out there to stop cars and give out tickets. He was there to make the roads safer."

No one witnessed the fateful encounter that October evening, but minutes after Saunders called in the license plate, dispatch received a frantic call from a passer-by. Officer down. Shot through the head.

One week later, 2,000 police officers from Arizona to Canada turned out to mourn their fallen comrade. A bell tolled 21 times and bagpipes wailed a Scottish dirge as Saunders' buddies carried him home to Leavenworth, the nearby town where neighbors still remember the high school basketball star turned cop.

While a community wept, Nicolas Solorio Vasquez, sat in jail -- a place familiar to the 28-year-old Mexican national. After all, he had been there three times before. In January 1996, Vasquez was arrested on drug charges and deported. Again in October 1996. Again in October 1997. In July 1999, Vasquez was arrested a fourth time on a cocaine-delivery charge. Though he was in the U.S. illegally and had an extensive criminal record, Vasquez was freed on $5,000 bail. Two months later, he murdered Jim Saunders.

By INS standard procedure, Vasquez should have been detained after local officials faxed Border Patrol that he was a suspected illegal. But the overworked agents failed to notify the jail or take Vasquez into federal custody where his criminal record would have made him ineligible for bail. Instead, he went free, and the Saunders family paid a horrific price. Their story was lost in local papers, but its lesson should ring loud across a country on alert. Nicolas Solorio Vasquez, a known felon, was able to trespass our borders four times to deal drugs and finally commit murder before being intercepted. And while the trooper's family can't contemplate a darker nightmare, in a world with terror on the loose, a similar lapse could have far more catastrophic consequences.

Last week, Time magazine reported that in October the White House received intelligence that terrorists had obtained a 10-kiloton portable nuclear weapon from the Russian arsenal and were planning to smuggle it into New York City. The story said that "detonated in lower Manhattan, a 10-kiloton bomb would kill some 100,000 civilians and irradiate 700,000 more, flattening everything in a half-mile diameter," but the actual devastation would be incalculable.

Since then, the intelligence source has been discredited, but the threat remains. "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs," President Bush said in his State of the Union address. Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Bob Graham recently brought that threat home. "There are 100 or more al Qaeda operatives inside the United States...all of whom went through a training process to prepare them to carry out terrorist plots," he told CNN.

Yet our permissive immigration policies waltz on. Nine to eleven million illegals currently live among us, and another half million will enter this year. The 2,000 INS agents charged with internal enforcement manage to deport about 1% -- an action most, like Nicolas Vasquez, simply consider a temporary setback. Among the remainder, many fit the poet's "longing to breathe free" refrain and mean their adopted country no harm. But their presence is premised on a violation of American law, and their sheer number shelters the Nicolas Vasquez's of the world, and, quite possibly, cells far more sinister. We wouldn't know because we don't even know their names, much less their intent.

What will it take to wake us to this peril? For Kennewick, Washington, a stolen handgun turned on the city's finest. For the population at large, another September 11? Another landmark leveled or skyline torn or crater that was once a city?

God willing, that day will never come. But if it does - many say when it does - we cannot claim that the next horror didn't announce itself in advance.

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