criminals, rest easy - there are immigrants to prosecute

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Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse has another important study out.  From the NY Times this morning:

Criminal prosecutions of immigrants by federal authorities surged to a record high in March, as immigration cases accounted for the majority — 57 percent — of all new federal criminal cases brought nationwide that month, according to a report published Tuesday by a nonpartisan research group.

The federal government has apparently decided that enforcing the misdemeanor charge incurred after someone crosses the border without permission is the number one law enforcement priority nationwide. 

In another striking finding, the report said that 99 percent of people referred to federal prosecutors for immigration offenses in March were charged. “Any immigration case that comes through the door is going to be prosecuted,” Mr. Burnham said. “That’s astonishing.”

But sentences for those convicted were short, with the median being one month.

The point is not so much the length of time served as the future immigration consequences for those convicted and deported.  Criminal charges often make migrants ineligible for future immigration benefits, and a deportation typically makes a person ineligible for reentry for 10 years.  This is especially heartbreaking when you consider that many of those picked up have had to make difficult choices about whether to stay in the U.S. or try to leave temporarily.  Some may decide the risk of crossing is worth it to see a dying family member for the last time or visit children or spouses from whom they’ve long been separated.

Under the border program, called Operation Streamline, prosecutors have brought criminal misdemeanor charges against immigrants caught entering the country illegally for the first time. Immigrants who were caught re-entering after they had been deported have faced tough felony charges and longer sentences.

Immigration lawyers have warned that the widespread application of criminal charges has resulted in overly hasty prosecutions and undermined immigrants’ abilities to exercise their immigration rights, which might allow them to avoid deportation.

“The federal government has decided that it’s O.K. in the criminal immigration context to shortcut the normal process,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the national immigration bar. “What this means is, let’s just run them through, to see how fast can we expedite justice.”

 Ms. Walker, a lawyer based in El Paso, said immigrants in criminal proceedings along the border might have criminal defense lawyers but often had no chance to consult immigration lawyers. “Those niceties, you don’t have time to get to them,” she said.

So much for the right to counsel. 

Meanwhile, tougher penalties for crossing may actually increase the net number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. by preventing some who otherwise would have returned home from doing so.  Duke recently reported on a study from a few years back which

found that with increased security between 1992 and 2000, the number of Mexican migrants returning home each year went down from 20% to 7%.  It is only safe to assume that those numbers have decreased dramatically in the last six years.

This is certainly true based on my experiences with my clients.  Historically this was the case with Italian migration after Congress implemented drastically reduced quotas for Southern European immigration in 1924 in response to a wave of nativism triggered by the Ellis Island years.  Italian immigrants had previously been free to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Italy; after the restrictive laws were passed, this came to an abrupt stop. 

I hope I’m not the only one who finds it problematic that the government’s law enforcement priorities are driven by a vocal, frenetic restrictionist minority.


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1 Comments

kyledeb said:

Your title says it all, yave,

Criminals rest easy, because politicians have migrants to prosecute. I was hoping someone would cover this and I'm glad you did.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on June 18, 2008 7:23 AM.

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