May 28, 2008

More illegal immigrants are being charged criminally in Austin

More illegal immigrants are being charged criminally in Austin
Prison time comes before deportation for some.
By Steven Kreytak


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

His mother had suffered a stroke, and his family needed money. So even though he had been deported once from the United States last year, Edgar Rodriguez-Sarmiento left his home in a rural Honduran village, paid a smuggler $2,000 to get him across the border and sought work while living in an Austin apartment off East Riverside Drive in January, according to court documents and his lawyer.

Six weeks later, Rodriguez was arrested on public intoxication charges and brought to the Travis County Jail. He was tagged by immigration agents and became enmeshed in a federal effort to charge even those with minor or no criminal history with the crime of re-entering the U.S. after deportation, a felony.

The effort, part of a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration, has led to a surge in the number of undocumented immigrants in Austin who are being hit with a felony conviction, and sometimes sent to prison, before being deported.

The practice has been criticized by immigrant advocates and defense lawyers, who call it a waste of resources.

In recent years, about three to five people a month were charged in U.S. District Court in Austin with returning to the United States after deportation. In March, when Rodriguez was indicted, 17 people were charged with the crime in federal court in Austin, according to an American-Statesman review of cases.

In April, federal prosecutors in Austin charged 21 people with illegally re-entering the United States after deportation, and this month they have charged 25, according to the review. A total of eight people were charged in January and February.

Illegal re-entry is punishable by as much as to two years in prison. If the defendant has a previous aggravated felony, the maximum punishment goes up to 20 years in prison.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton is leading the federal effortin the western district of Texas, which covers a wide swath of the border, including the cities of El Paso and Del Rio.

A recent report by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse said the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had filed 8,064 cases nationwide in February, a 43.8 percent increase compared with February 2007.

"There's a strong push to enforce the immigration laws and to be more aggressive," Sutton said. "Criminal illegal aliens are being prosecuted where maybe sometimes in the past they weren't."

Until two years ago, Sutton's office had a long-standing practice of prosecuting for illegal re-entry only immigrants who had previously committed an aggravated felony, such as rape, burglary or drug trafficking, or who had been deported and re-entered the country numerous times. The 2006 increase in cases against some immigrants with minor or no criminal histories appeared to be part of a national crackdown. But Sutton said at the time that there wouldn't be a sustained increase in those cases. There wasn't, until this year.

Adrian Ramirez, a San Antonio-based assistant field director for ICE's detention and removal division, said things changed in December or January after agency officials met with federal prosecutors in Washington. After that meeting, Ramirez said, agents were told to bring the cases of any immigrant who had been previously deported, even if they had no significant criminal history, to the U.S. attorney's office, which had agreed to prosecute them.

"They wanted a big push on that," Ramirez said. "Prosecution is a deterrent, especially for people who have already had an opportunity to be here, were deported and came back."

Ramirez oversees immigration agents who look for undocumented immigrants in prison and jails, including the Travis County Jail, where the increased presence of immigration agents this year has drawn protests in Austin.

ICE officials have said that from January 1 through March 31, the agency placed 763 immigration holds on inmates at the Travis County Jail — an almost 400 percent increase from the same period last year. That means that after the cases of those inmates are adjudicated, ICE is contacted to take possession of the person. Most are deported immediately, Ramirez said. The ones who have previously been deported are referred to the U.S. attorney's office, which prosecutes them in federal court.

A spokesman for Sutton said he did not know the average sentence for people found guilty illegal re-entry in Austin but said that in the western district of Texas, about 65 percent of defendants in immigration cases receive less than three years in prison.

"As a taxpayer, it's ridiculous that federal prosecutors are having to spend their time on these cases," said Horatio Aldredge, an assistant federal public defender who has defended many of the people charged with immigration crimes in Austin. He said that court personnel — defense lawyers, judges, prosecutors and clerks — are working harder than ever to handle the cases.

Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, questioned whether federal resources are being used wisely. "It goes against the trend that's happening at most state law enforcement levels of taking jail and prison resources and choosing not to deploy them towards nonviolent offenders," she said.

Of the 71 people charged in federal court in Austin since Jan. 1 with re-entry of a deported alien, 39 were discovered by immigration agents in the Travis County Jail, two were found in the Travis County state jail, an intermediate prison, and nine were discovered in the jails of counties outside Austin.

The rest, authorities said, were found during criminal investigations, such as when ICE breaks up an immigrant smuggling operation and finds that some of the human cargo have previously been deported.

"All these individuals ... presented for prosecutions, even for what some may consider a minor violation like entry after deportation, they all ... have come into our custody in some sort of criminal environment," said Gerry Robinette, special agent in charge of the ICE office of investigations in San Antonio, who oversees the Austin office. "It's not like we went out there and blindly picked on somebody."

One of the defendants recently prosecuted for illegal re-entry in Austin was Jaime Segura-Moreno, who in 2005 was sentenced in Corpus Christi to 17 months in prison for unlawfully transporting illegal immigrants within the United States. He was deported after he was released from prison in 2006 and found in Travis County in December. He was at a house being investigated after a report that immigrant smugglers were holding someone against their will pending payment of their smuggling fee, according to statements made during Segura's sentencing hearing last week. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel [appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003] sentenced Segura to almost five years in prison for illegal re-entry and six months for violating his supervised release on the previous charge.

Rodriguez, the Honduran who said he returned to the United States because his mother suffered a stroke, is from a rural village called Santa Teresa, where he worked as a corn farmer. He was arrested in January after Austin police found him passed out in the front seat of a car whose driver was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, according to court documents.

Aldredge, his lawyer, said the 22-year-old earned about $800 as a laborer while in Austin, not enough to cover his smuggling fee. Last week, Yeakel sentenced Rodriguez to the approximately three months that he had served awaiting sentencing

At the hearing, Rodriguez told Yeakel: "I am not coming back."; 912-2946

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