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Criminal charges surging in U.S. immigration cases

Jump reflects policy shift in efforts to curb border entries

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Criminal prosecutions of immigrants by U.S. 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.

Immigration cases also made up more than half of new federal prosecutions in February, reflecting a major emphasis on immigration by the Bush administration and a policy shift to expand the use of criminal, rather than civil, charges in its efforts to curb illegal immigration.

In March, according to the report, narcotics cases, the next largest category, were 13 percent of new prosecutions by the Justice Department. The third-largest category, weapons cases, were 5 percent.

The report, by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data analysis organization affiliated with Syracuse University, was based on figures from the Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The group obtained the figures through the Freedom of Information Act.

The record number of 9,350 new immigration prosecutions in March was part of a "highly unusual surge" that began in January, the report said, and represented 73 percent more new immigration cases compared with March 2007. Most cases were in districts along the border with Mexico and were part of a rapidly expanding program by the Border Patrol and the Justice Department to press criminal charges against virtually all immigrants caught crossing the border illegally in some sectors.

"We've never seen such a surge at the national level," said David Burnham, a co-director of the Syracuse group. "They are deciding that the use of criminal law is the way to solve the border patrol problem."

In a crackdown that has accelerated since last June, when immigration legislation supported by President Bush failed in Congress, the administration has sought to show it is serious about enforcing immigration laws. In a new strategy, the authorities have brought an array of criminal charges against illegal immigrants stopped at the border or rounded up in raids at factories and other workplaces. Previously, illegal immigrants were generally charged under immigration law with civil violations, not criminal ones.

Justice Department officials would not confirm the Syracuse group's conclusions, repeating criticism they have made in the past of the group's reports. A department spokeswoman, Carolyn M. Nelson, said in a statement that the clearinghouse "has a pattern of omitting certain statistics, resulting in misleading information regarding prosecutions."

"Nonetheless," Nelson said, "it is certainly true that the department has prioritized immigration-related crimes over the last few years and that we have successfully prosecuted an increasing number of these cases."

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," Burnham said. "That's astonishing."

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

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 OK 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."

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.

Border Patrol officials say Operation Streamline has reduced efforts by immigrants to cross the border illegally in the limited sectors where it has been applied. In the sector near Yuma, Ariz., one of the first places where the program was put into practice, agents detained 447 illegal immigrants crossing the border in May, down from 3,162 in May 2007.