Thu, Jul. 17, 2008
By PATRICK McGEE
Americans who have demanded better enforcement against illegal immigrants are getting it. Immigration prosecutions are skyrocketing, according to an independent group that analyzes federal data.
Federal prosecutions for immigration offenses totaled more than 9,000 in April. That’s 87 percent higher than a year earlier and 237 percent higher than five years ago, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University in New York.
The increase started in February and shot up higher in March and even higher in April.
Immigration cases now make up 58 percent of federal prosecutions. Drugs and drug trafficking are a distant second at 13 percent, according to TRAC.
"It’s just substantially up," said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC. "It’s over anything that has ever been."
Experts said that federal law enforcement officers paid little attention to illegal immigrants for years, so their numbers grew. But voters and elected leaders are demanding crackdowns, and there are easy arrests to be made — and more immigration enforcement agents to make them.
U.S. Attorney Richard Roper who leads 90 federal prosecutors for the Northern District of Texas, said immigration cases comprise 25 percent of his docket, up from 20 percent a year ago.
The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Dallas office always pushes for prosecutions, said Reed Little, assistant field office director for detention.
"We’re always asking, 'Can you take more cases? Can you take more cases?’ " Little said.
Most prosecutions target people who entered the U.S. illegally after being deported, which is a felony, Roper, Little and the TRAC report said.
Roper said he tries to concentrate on illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes because he does not have enough resources to prosecute every case.
Little said most of the illegal re-entry cases come from the Criminal Alien Program. Local jails, such as those in Irving, Farmers Branch and Grand Prairie, refer suspected illegal immigrants to ICE.
The Criminal Alien Program attracted large protests in Irving in 2007, but the policy continued after the public showed strong support in calls to Irving City Hall and at the ballot box by re-electing pro-CAP candidates.
May not last
Carlos Quintanilla, a Dallas activist who organized marches against CAP, said strong enforcement is the wrong approach when there’s a good chance Congress might grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
"I don’t see any benefit in continuing a very aggressive deportation policy or a prosecutorial policy when both [presidential] candidates are talking about comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "Are they going to prosecute all 12 million immigrants that are here illegally? When are they going to reach their happy medium? When are they going to reach an acceptable number?"
But Joel Downs, president of the Fort Worth chapter of Citizens For Immigration Reform, which wants tough enforcement, said he’s glad to see the increase in prosecutions.
"We’re always glad to hear that the law is being enforced," he said. "Things are better."
Alejandro del Carmen, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Texas at Arlington, believes the increased prosecutions are driven by the public’s frustration with illegal immigration. He said it might not last when the political climate shifts to another issue.
"I would expect at one point almost diminishing returns once immigration is no longer perceived as the No. 1 issue facing the United States," he said.
PATRICK McGEE, 817-685-3806