September 1, 2008> (Criminal) Immigrant Prosecutions Reach A High

Immigrant prosecutions reach a high

By Rachel Uranga
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), September 1, 2008

Fueled by a broad crackdown by immigration officials, federal prosecutions of illegal immigrants with felony records in Southern California are on pace this year to hit a high not seen in nearly a decade.

So far this fiscal year, there have been 657 federal prosecutions – up more than 20 percent from the previous year, according to figures from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

And with three months still left to count – and about 50 cases filed per month – this year's total should surpass the 792 cases filed in 2003-2004 and mark a nearly 400 percent increase over the 135 cases filed in 2000-2001.

The prosecutions come as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have stepped up efforts to focus on criminal illegal immigrants, and federal agents also are cracking down on those who ignore deportation orders or commit crimes.

'These defendants pose a demonstrated threat here in the United States,' said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the local U.S. Attorney's Office, which oversees a seven-county region in Southern California.

'They have no place on our streets and even when deported to their home countries, they have shown a willingness to return to the United States.'

This year, local federal prosecutors have filed cases against more immigrants with criminal records for entering the country illegally than any other crime. The cases often result in sentences of two to three years.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office loaned several lawyers to the U.S. Attorney's Office to target immigrant gang members and aid prosecutions.

The rise in prosecutions is part of an increase in immigration enforcement. Local police have become a key filter for beefed up federal immigration efforts in Southern California.

Already, deputies are identifying nearly 100 illegal immigrants a week convicted of crimes from trespassing to armed robbery. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the jail also are marking others for deportation.

Meanwhile, ICE plans to expand teams in Southern California to carry out door-to-door sweeps of immigrants who have ignored deportation orders or have criminal records. Dubbed 'Fugitive Operations,' the national effort has lowered the number of immigrants who received deportation orders but remain here.

Though records show deportation rates in the region are on par with the previous year, immigration officials say the shutdown of the ICE detention and removal processing center on Terminal Island in October could have lowered that figure.

'L.A. County has identified probably one of the largest number of foreign-born nationals who are placed into removal proceedings in the country,' said Kelly Nantel, an ICE spokeswoman.

'We believe our enforcement efforts are having the desired effect. … We are catching criminal aliens and placing them into removal proceedings and removing them,' she said, noting a recently issued report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit think tank that favors less immigration.

The report found that the number of illegal immigrants declined 11 percent between August 2007 and May, based on U.S. Census data. The authors argue in the July report that immigrants are returning home because they fear the enforcement.

According to the most recent figures, ICE deportations nationally have increased since 2005, when about 205,000 illegal immigrants were deported. Last year, about 285,000 were removed from the U.S., and this year is on pace for a similar number, with 265,000 so far.

In the seven-county region covered by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Southern California, 17,582 illegal immigrants have been deported so far this year. Last year, there were almost 21,000.

But immigrant-rights advocates say the increased enforcement has sent ripples of fear through immigrant communities – with children scared to attend school, worried their parents will be deported, and some now more reluctant to report crimes. And they say it has swept many law-abiding immigrants into the system.

'When you say the word criminal, people think about the word violence, but a lot of time these are crimes of poverty,' said Xiomara Corpeno, an organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.

'We are seeing people with no criminal record getting funneled into the system for very basic traffic violations.'