Deportations skyrocket because of immigration bill Clinton signed

May 15, 2009

Deportations have spiked over a decade
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, September 17, 2006

The illegal-immigrant population is estimated to have more than doubled in the past decade, while prosecutions and deportations have quadrupled during that time.

Federal prosecutions and deportations of immigrants have quadrupled during the past 10 years in a crackdown on illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

“There’s been a huge crackdown, which I don’t think a lot of people know about,” said Andrea Black, network coordinator for Detention Watch Network, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition that advocates for immigrant detainees. “And it really hasn’t changed anything if you look at the [immigration] numbers.”

The spike in enforcement during the last decade has come as the number of illegal immigrants in the United States is estimated to have jumped from 5 million in 1996 to 11.5 million this year.

Prosecutions for immigration crimes, such as returning after being deported, have increased steadily from about 3,877 in 1995 to 18,322 in 2005, according to numbers from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The bulk of these prosecutions are aimed at immigrants who have criminal convictions such as for drug and assault offenses, officials say.

A policy switch

Deportations skyrocketed in 1997, the year after President Clinton signed a bill making many previously minor offenses grounds for deportation. The numbers have continued to climb, with more than 200,000 immigrants kicked out of the country last year, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

The 1996 legislation also eliminated deportation waivers, which let immigration judges decide whether immigrants with legal residency for seven years or more could stay in the country.

Some legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for most of their lives have been deported because of convictions for minor crimes, such as possessing small amounts of drugs, said Peter Fleury, an assistant federal public defender who works in Fort Worth.

That’s because, under the law, some minor crimes can be defined as aggravated felonies.

“If you’re convicted of an aggravated felony, you’re automatically deported” after serving your sentence, Fleury said. “And there’s no hope of ever coming back. It’s a lifetime ban.”

John Trasvina, interim president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said this is unfair because the definition of aggravated felony varies from state to state. Experts said some people have been deported for shoplifting.

Prosecutors’ priorities

Prosecutors say they target illegal immigrants convicted of major crimes, such as sexual-assault offenses, because they need to prioritize their case loads. The immigrants are prosecuted for being in the United States illegally. If found guilty, they can serve jail sentences before being deported.

Public defenders said it’s difficult to defend people charged with being in the country illegally when they are standing before the judge or jury with no papers.

“It’s often a fairly defenseless case,” Fleury said. “We’re not usually able to go back and relitigate the fairness of their deportation hearings.”

The odds are stacked against defendants who are prosecuted for immigration crimes, according to Department of Justice figures from 2003, the most recent available:

-98 percent of immigration defendants are detained in jail before trial — a higher rate than for suspects of any other crime.

-98 percent of them are convicted.

-81 percent of immigration convicts are imprisoned. They are among the convicts most likely to go to prison.

More are incarcerated

The result is a growing immigration population in U.S. prisons. Immigrant offenders make up 11 percent of the more than 187,000 inmates in federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Prisons’ 2005 State of the Bureau report.

They make up a greater percentage of federal inmates than convicted robbers, murderers, kidnappers and sex offenders combined.

Only drug, weapons, explosives and arson convicts have higher incarceration rates.

The growing numbers of immigrant prosecutions and deportations can be attributed partly to the rise in illegal immigrants in the country.

But that growth was not always steady. Illegal immigration fluctuated over the last decade while prosecutions and deportations have climbed.

The Border Patrol’s monthly apprehensions along the Mexican border peaked at about 130,000 during the U.S. economic boom times of the late 1990s then dropped to nearly 40,000 during the 2001 economic slowdown. Many experts believe the fluctuation shows that illegal immigration is more influenced by the availability of jobs than by government crackdowns.

The increased enforcement also comes during a stronger national crackdown in overall crime.

More police and prosecutors have been hired over the years in an increasingly get-tough approach to crime, said Alejandro del Carmen, an associate criminology and criminal-justice professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. More police at the local level means more arrests.

One area arrest

Last year in Carrollton, police arrested Raymundo Aragonez, 35, of Mexico on suspicion of burglary. He was released from jail on that charge but immediately went into federal custody because his name was in a database that showed he had returned to the country after being deported in 2000 after his conviction for sexual assault.

With his burglary charge still pending at the local level, federal prosecutors got a conviction for illegal re-entry.

In a Dallas federal court Sept. 8, Judge Jerry Buchmeyer considered Aragonez’s criminal record and sentenced him to 2 1/2 years in prison for returning to the U.S. after being deported.

When Buchmeyer asked Aragonez whether he wanted to say anything, Aragonez said through a translator, “I didn’t realize how severe the penalty was for coming back.”

Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the assistant United States attorney who prosecuted Aragonez, said he goes after convicts with violent or sex offenses in their records.

He said illegal immigrants with minor offenses or no offenses other than being here illegally are almost never prosecuted unless they are believed to be a gang member.

“As a rule, we try not to prosecute the [simple] illegal-entry cases because the punishment is so low, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a deterrent effect,” Rodriguez said. “If we decide not to prosecute, they get deported.”