Illegal immigration is now the No. 1 federal crime in America. One of every three criminal convictions in federal court last year were related to illegal immigration, according to a study by Syracuse University researchers.
Immigration enforcement officers are taking more cases to court than the FBI, the DEA and the IRS combined.
Entering the United States without formally passing through a port of entry is a federal misdemeanor. Prosecutors traditionally have avoided those cases to focus on felonies related to human smuggling and drug trafficking, as well as illegal immigrants with violent pasts. People who have crossed illegally, but otherwise are abiding by the law, routinely have been sent back to their home country without fines or jail.
The federal approach has been changing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, amid growing complaints by immigration control advocates. Statistics compiled by Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse show the number of prosecutions for immigration violations nationwide nearly doubled last year, and convictions increased by 70 percent to 31,208.
The most dramatic change was in south Texas, where an additional 13,578 immigrationrelated convictions were obtained in a single year. Much of the increase nationwide is driven by prosecutors bringing more misdemeanor cases against those who have crossed illegally, the study says.
Arizona doesn’t appear to reflect that trend, as U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton continues to focus on prosecuting human smugglers and illegal immigrants who were caught previously and sent back to their home countries. While the federal courts in Arizona reported about 2,000 additional cases last year, figures from Charlton’s office showed a slight decrease in cases referred for prosecution, said researcher David Burnham.
The difference in prosecution between south Texas and Arizona raises questions about the national strategy on immigration control, Burnham said. "Who’s in charge here? Shouldn’t there be a uniform policy?" he said.
Charlton said the disparity results from differences in case reporting, not in prosecution policy. The federal district of south Texas decided last year to note and to report every single misdemeanor case, while Charlton’s office doesn’t.
"There’s certainly nuances about the way that we prosecute cases versus the ways other districts prosecute cases," Charlton said. "But the overall concerns are the same. We’re interested in catching individuals who are smugglers . . . who have aggravated felonies in their history, people who have put other people’s live at risk."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security caught more than 1 million people near the international borders in fiscal 2004, and an additional 157,000 were discovered somewhere in the country’s interior.
Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency for Arizona’s border counties last week. She has been demanding that the federal government send more dollars to Arizona for border control and for state costs created by immigrants who aren’t stopped from entering the United States.
Michael Chertoff, the nation’s Homeland Security chief, sent a letter this week to Napolitano inviting state Department of Public Safety officers to work with federal officials in enforcing border security. Chertoff offered to have four DPS undercover officers work with task forces that target human smuggling in the Phoenix area.
The governor on Monday told Capitol Media Services night she is "encouraged’’ by the fact that Chertoff is interested in working with the state. "Obviously there’s some things we need to nail down,’’ said Napolitano. "But finally we’re seeing some movement.’’
Some Republican politicians are pushing for even broader and more aggressive policies from both federal and state officials.
"I am not naive enough to think that we’ll have no violations," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. "But we have to enforce the law. Go after the employers (who hire illegal immigrants), secure the border and get local law enforcement involved, and you’ll see an overnight change in this country."
Others say such expectations are unrealistic. Alfredo Gutierrez, a Spanish radio talk show host and former state senator, points out that prominent politicians from Napolitano to President Bush and Sen. John McCain have called for an expansive guestworker program. "We have to have a rational immigration policy in this country," he said.
- Capitol Media Services contributed to this report