INS at Work
Regional Patterns in INS Enforcement

The constitution says that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law. So questions about how the federal government enforces the law in different parts of the country are always worth examining.

Of course some of the regional variations found in federal enforcement appear to reasonable. Considering the basic mission of the INS it makes perfect sense that its criminal enforcement activities are largely carried out along the country's borders, with very limited activity in the country's heartland.

But there often are variations that raise a preliminary question of basic fairness. Further exploration may turn up good explanations for the differences, but the differences on their face are worth probing.

When considered in terms of INS referrals for prosecutions, the five federal districts along the southwest border are at the very top, way above the national average. But are there good explanations why Oregon (Portland) ,Washington East (Spokane), Georgia North (Atlanta) and Utah (Salt Lake City) are also among the most active -- ranking in the top 15 out of the 90 federal districts in the United States?

Ponder the prison sentences that result from INS convictions in the agency's four busiest districts. Together, these four districts account for well over half of all the individuals sentenced to prison in the United States as a result of an INS investigation. In Arizona (Phoenix) the median sentence was 24 months. In Texas South (Houston) the median sentence was 18 months. And in California South (San Diego) the median sentence was 13 months. But in Texas West (San Antonio) the median was only six months, well under half of the time imposed in the other three districts. (Median means half got more time, half got less.)

Is this variation fair? Because the discretion of federal judges has been substantially reduced by various sentencing guidelines and because almost all cases are decided by a plea rather than a jury trial, some other explanation has to be found for the four-fold difference in the median INS sentence in Arizona and and western Texas.

Perhaps the differences lie in the kinds of cases being investigated and prosecuted in the four districts. But if so, have the Attorney General or INS commissioner ever asked for an explanation? Is the nature of criminal immigration activity that different in the four districts? If their goal is tougher enforcement, what is the secret behind Arizona's relatively long sentences and why hasn't the secret been passed on to the other districts? If their goal is the even-handed application of the law, what distinguishes the four districts and how can the outcome of their work be made more consistent?

One explanation for the very different sentences certainly can be ruled out. Under legal custom and Justice Department regulations, each U.S. Attorney is authorized to pick and choose the cases they will prosecute. But in the case of these four districts, the prosecutors don't do much picking and choosing. In fact, the assistant U.S. Attorneys in each district prosecuted 98 percent or more of the matters referred to them by the INS.

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