Texas Prosecution of Illegal Immigrants Spikes

A new report shows a spike in immigration prosecutions in Texas. A federal prosecutor says his office has made it a priority since Sept. 11, with prosecutors working long days and weekends, and carrying caseloads that are many times larger than their counterparts in other districts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The governors of New Mexico and Arizona last week declared states of emergency. They said illegal immigrants were pouring across their borders with Mexico, and the federal government wasn't doing much to stop them. A new report finds that enforcement of US immigration violations generally is up from a year ago, and dramatically so along one stretch of the Mexican border. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

David Burnham used the Freedom of Information Act to look at Justice Department records and court documents. He analyzed them for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, out of Syracuse University, and what Burnham found stunned him. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security recommended prosecuting 65 percent more immigration cases than the year before.

Mr. DAVID BURNHAM: Immigration enforcement is now the number-one activity of the federal government. You know, it's more than drugs. It's more than weapons violations. This represents a real shift in emphasis.

LUDDEN: But most stunning, that shift was skewed by a spike in immigration prosecutions in one district of southern Texas. It's an area that includes Houston and the border towns of Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen.

Mr. BURNHAM: Very, very, very--just an amazingly sharp increase.

LUDDEN: From 4,000 cases in 2003 to 18,000 last year.

Mr. MICHAEL SHELBY (Former Texas US Attorney): The president gave our first priority to be the prevention of another 9/11, and so when I had to assign resources, that was the priority that we met first.

LUDDEN: Michael Shelby was the US attorney in south Texas until June of this year, and he says he actually started making changes in late 2002. For years, Shelby says the border was a revolving door. Border Patrol officers who caught illegal migrants would just turn them back with a warning, time and again, maybe a dozen times, before they were finally arrested and charged. So Shelby, in essence, instituted a `one strike and you're out' policy.

Mr. SHELBY: The idea being we could have a greater deterrent effect, and in the event that we did want to put a severe sanction against someone, we could demonstrate that this person had already been in the criminal justice system two or three times, albeit at a misdemeanor level, and now there needed to be some significant sanction for this.

LUDDEN: Shelby says the new zealousness has drawn resources away from things like corporate fraud and drug smuggling, and it's put an enormous strain on the staff.

Mr. SHELBY: On the one hand, it will make you quite proud that government employees are working this hard, and on the other hand it's quite embarrassing that the average caseload is somewhere around 20 cases per assistant US attorney. Their caseload averages 400 cases per lawyer down there.

LUDDEN: Doris Meissner is a former INS commissioner. She applauds the effort in south Texas...

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Former INS Commissioner): But it's also very clear that you're not finding terrorists and terrorist cases in this kind of prosecution effort.

LUDDEN: The TRAC report finds that of nearly 38,000 immigration cases pursued by Homeland Security last year, just 11 were believed to involve actual terrorists. That's why Meissner doubts Washington would fund this kind of all-out effort all along the border, and, without extra money, former US attorney Michael Shelby admits, at some point, prosecutors in south Texas won't be able to keep it up. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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