IRS New Findings

Graphical Highlights Graphical Highlights

Figure 1. Click for larger image
  • Prosecution of Immigration Cases Surge in U.S.
  • Sentences Slump
  • Massive Jump Found in One Judicial District

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommended the prosecution of 65% more immigration cases in FY 2004 than it did in the previous year, according to authoritative Justice Department data obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). See Figure 1.

    Figure 2. Click for larger image
    And on the basis of even more timely data, also provided TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act, the heightened level of DHS immigration referrals continued during the first six months of FY 2005. See Figure 2.

    As the number of cases has surged, the resulting sentences imposed on the violators has dropped substantially with the median or typical sentence declining from 15 months in FY 2003 to one month in FY 2004 and less than 4 months during the first six months of FY 2005. See Figure 3.

    Figure 3. Click for larger image
    TRAC's analysis of the data, however, indicates that the discretionary decisions of the judges had little to do with this sharp decline in sentences. Rather, as will be explained in greater detail below, the overall drop appears to be mostly related to recent changes in the specific charges that the government has brought against a large number of immigration suspects and how the cases were processed.

    Figure 4. Click for larger image
    Although DHS immigration referrals increased in about two out of three of the 90 federal judicial districts around the United States, the sharpest spike occurred in the Southern District of Texas (Houston) where recommendations for the prosecution of these cases jumped by a startling 345%, increasing from 4,062 to 18,092 in just one year. While Texas South is one of the five federal judicial districts along the Mexican border, the extraordinary increase in criminal immigration cases there was far steeper than that documented for any of the other border districts or for the nation as a whole. See Figure 4.

    The Enforcement Process

    Virtually all nations, whether large or small, seek to control their borders.

    In an attempt to achieve this goal, going back for more than 200 years, the United States has adopted an increasingly massive and sometimes overlapping mix of enforcement mechanisms. Although over the years the agencies responsible for this work have been re-organized, renamed and in some cases enlarged, the basic four-stage framework of the overall structure has so far not been fundamentally changed as a result of 9/11.

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    Controlling U.S. borders against unwanted persons has been a contentious and difficult challenge ever since the nation was born. For example, John Adams, the second president of the United States, persuaded Congress to adopt the Alien and Sedition Acts. One of President Adams' central concerns was his belief that agents of the radical forces leading the French government during the French Revolution posed a genuine threat to the American political system. Thomas Jefferson, who became the third president, did not agree with Adams and was outraged by the law.

    More than 200 years later, immigration is still a divisive issue for the American people, for the Congress and even for the highly disciplined Bush Administration. In late July, for example, the challenge of finding a broadly acceptable solution became painfully obvious when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elain Chao unexpectedly failed to appear at a long-scheduled Senate hearing to discuss two opposing immigration bills.

    But the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Arlen Specter, said he would not let the administration's silence stop his committee from doing its work. The search for consensus, of course, has been difficult because the American people have profoundly different views about what the government should do. Many business leaders, for example, believe a smoothly operating guest worker program is essential for the economy to expand. On the other hand, many citizens living along the border with Mexico feel the government's primary emphasis should be on preventing the entry of illegal migrants. And clearly, with the events of 9/11/01, the long national debate about who should enter the country, when they should enter and under what conditions has become unusually intense.

    The current debate has manifested itself in many different ways. Very recently, for example, the Democratic governors of New Mexico and Arizona said the federal government's inability to control crime and violence on the U.S. border with Mexico had forced them to take separate actions that would provide emergency funding for additional state and local enforcement activities in a number of their counties. In Washington, the DHS immediately responded with a statement asserting that "extraordinary progress" was being made in controlling the border. And this spring, in Arizona, hundreds of volunteers joined what was called the "Minuteman Project", anointing themselves as citizen border patrol agents. Meanwhile the United States Congress was battling over the merits and demerits of a variety of border control measures that some viewed as essential to the survival of the nation and others saw as undermining the democratic system.

    As was demonstrated by the declarations of emergency in New Mexico and Arizona, the battle in Congress over a law requiring states to issue new tamper-proof driving licenses and the mobilization of the "Minutemen" to beef up security along a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona border, immigration has once again become a hot political issue.

    But with the decision of Mr. Chertoff and Ms. Chao not to testify before the Senate Judiciary, the Bush Administration's position on these and other immigration issues remains somewhat murky, largely defined by a generally worded January 2004 statement on the White House web site that called for "fair and secure immigration reform." These twin goals can be achieved, the administration said, by emphasizing the improvement of the nation's control of its borders and a new guest worker program under which willing workers would be matched with willing employers when no American worker is available for a particular job.

    Often, however, through the systematic examination of individual actions taken by the government, official policies can be discerned even when they are not directly articulated by the governors. When it comes to protecting the borders, for example, dramatic changes in the criminal enforcement of the immigration laws may well provide important clues as to actual policy.

    What Indeed Is the Administration's Enforcement Policy?

    When the changes in the overall immigration enforcement effort are examined, it would appear that the Bush Administration has in fact adopted an across-the-board get-tough policy: more referrals, more prosecutions and more convictions. The overall counts for the entire nation seem clear. Referrals climbed from just under 24,000 in FY 2003 to almost 40,000 in FY 2004 -- an increase of 65%. In the same period, prosecutions rose 82% -- from almost 21,000 to just under 38,000. And the increase in convictions was similarly up, 18,000 to 31,000. (See Figure 1 above.)

    Figure 5. Click for larger image
    But when the skyrocketing enforcement actions in the Southern District of Texas are subtracted from the national counts, a somewhat different picture emerges. While one small corner of the nation clearly went into super drive in 2004, the overall DHS enforcement effort was more modest. Excluding Texas South, referrals for prosecution went up only 8%, prosecutions went up 16% and convictions actually fell, down by 4%. See Figure 5.

    This stark difference between the documented policies of the nation and a district are more evidence of how federal enforcement in one part of the country -- influenced perhaps by the ambitions of an individual U.S. Attorney, staffing decisions of a key agency or some other unannounced change -- sometimes goes its own way. Although the federal government is often viewed as a rule-bound organization whose various parts mostly follow their orders from Washington, Justice Department data going back almost two decades indicate that sharp and hard-to-explain regional variations are not all that rare.

    The National Picture

    The national surge in the referral and prosecution of DHS immigration matters from 2003 to 2004 is unusual in its own right. But the jump also resulted in a number of dramatic changes in the overall look of the federal government's criminal enforcement effort. Among the changes are the following:

    Figure 6. Click for larger image

    • Fueled by the jump in DHS-immigration referrals in FY 2004, immigration matters now represent the single largest group of all federal prosecutions, about one third (32%) of the total. By comparison, narcotics and drugs, for many years the government's dominant enforcement interest, dropped to about a quarter of the total (27%) and weapons matters to slightly less than one out of ten (9%). See Figure 6.

    • Figure 7. Click for larger image

    • Looked at in terms of the range of the federal investigative agencies doing the work, the last few years has been a period when another kind of dramatic change became apparent with the immigration investigators in DHS now dominating the national enforcement effort. Measured by the number of criminal convictions, DHS is now number one, the Drug Enforcement Agency second and the FBI a surprising third. For many years the FBI ranked as the most active of all federal investigative agencies. See Figure 7.

    • Within the federal court system, six out every ten criminal immigration prosecutions (63%) in FY 2004 were handled in magistrate court by magistrate judges rather than through proceedings in U.S. district court, according to figures compiled by the courts (see Table). Only misdemeanor charges -- those where the maximum prison sentence is no more than a year -- can be disposed of in magistrate court, while district court can handle any level of offense. A law passed by Congress in 1996 [Federal Courts Improvement Act] abolished the requirement that defendants charged with certain "petty offenses" (misdemeanors with maximum sentences of no more than six months) give their consent to be tried before a magistrate rather than district court judge. The same legislation also allowed defendants in other misdemeanor cases to waive their right to a trial before a district court judge orally rather than in writing.
    • Primarily because the DHS was created in the wake of the terrible acts of 9/11/01, the core mission of this agency is widely viewed by the American people as combating terrorism. But as the detailed data about department's criminal enforcement effort make clear, terrorism cases in fact make up only a tiny fraction of its actual work. Overwhelmingly, the DHS is involved in the prosecution of traditional kinds of immigration cases that appear to have very little to do with intercepting bombers. In fact, only seven out of the 37,765 prosecutions filed arising out of its immigration enforcement were classified as involving international terrorism during FY 2004, and only one out of 20,771 prosecutions involved international terrorism during FY 2003.

    Texas South

    Texas South, originally established in 1902, currently is the seventh largest in the nation with over 7 million residents, 43 counties and more than 150 assistant U.S. Attorneys.

    From December 2001 until June of 2005 the U.S. Attorney in Texas South was Michael T. Shelby. He is now an attorney with Fulbright and Jaworski, a major national law firm based in Houston. In his May 13 resignation statement, Mr. Shelby praised the work of his office in handling cases involving international terrorism, corporate fraud and public corruption, but did not mention criminal cases involving immigration violations.

    Given the circumstances, this seems a curious lapse. According to the case- by-case information provided the Executive Office for United States Attorneys by the district he until recently headed, the office in FY 2004 prosecuted a total of slightly more than 21,000 individuals, 18,340 of whom it said were charged with immigration violations. By comparison, his office said, it only prosecuted 90 white collar crime matters, 35 internal security and terrorism matters and 15 official corruption matters.

    For the federal prosecutors in Texas South handling immigration matters, the data show that in 2004 -- the year when their enforcement effort absolutely exploded -- their favorite charge was a section of 8 USC 1325, illegal entry, that previously had been cited much less frequently. Convictions in the district where the section of illegal entry statute law was the lead charge went from 304 in FY 2003 to 13,778 in FY 2004. This jump means that in the most recent complete fiscal year that 8 USC 1325 convictions made up an overwhelming majority of all immigration matters in the district. See Table.

    Records from both the Justice Department and the courts show that many if not most of these cases are handled in a cursory way by magistrate judges rather than district court judges. For a flavor of how the process works consider the case brought in the Southern District of Texas against one Eduardo Garcia Nunez.

    The complaint was filed against Garcia Nunez by Amador H. Carbajal, a senior agent of the Border Patrol, who said the defendant had been apprehended by an agent who was not named while wading across the Rio Grande River near Brownsville on October 30, 2004. On the next business day, at a brief hearing before Magistrate Judge John William Black, Nunez was formally charged with violating 8 USC 1325(a) (1) for "willfully, knowingly and unlawfully" entering the United States at "a place other than designated by an immigration officer in violation of the law." During the same short session, represented by Sandra Zamora Zayas, a public defender, the defendant was advised of his right to trial, the right to remain silent, the right to bring witnesses on his behalf. Nunez, waiving all his rights, pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 days of confinement.

    The official minutes of the whole process required only a few lines of text:

    Counsel was appointed to represent the Defendant. The defendant was advised of and waived the following rights: The right to trial; the right to at least thirty (30) days to prepare for trial before the Magistrate Judge; the right to remain silent; the right to bring witnesses and present testimony on his/her behalf; the right to confront and cross examine witnesses. The Defendant was arraigned on the charge(s) contained in the criminal complaint. The Defendant pleaded guilty to the charge(s) in the criminal complaint. The Defendant was sentenced as outlined in the Judgment signed this day. ... (Entered 11/01/2004)

    Neither Mr. Shelby, the former U.S. Attorney, nor the public affairs officer in the Texas South responded to written inquiries requesting their explanations for the recent abrupt enforcement changes in the district.

    The sheer volume of DHS immigration referrals in Texas South (Houston) in FY 2004 (18,092) tower over the totals racked up by the four other districts along the Mexican border in the same year -- 4,170 in Texas West (San Antonio) , 3,407 in Arizona (Phoenix), 2,801 in California South (San Diego) and 1,771 in New Mexico (Albuquerque).

    Figure 8. Click for larger image
    While the five districts along the border with Mexico continue to be the most active in the nation, the data show a wide variation in both the level and the growth of these matters. Texas South, of course, was literally off the chart (see Figure 8). Texas West, Arizona and California South increased at a far slower pace during FY 2004. In New Mexico, the referrals actually declined.

    Along the border with Canada, although there were many fewer criminal referrals than in the districts next to Mexico, the overall total on the northern border increased by over a third between FY 2003 and FY 2004. As it was along the southern border, the growth rate in these districts was widely varied, ranging from increases of 140% in Pennsylvania, West (Pittsburgh) and 126% in Michigan East (Detroit) to decreases of 13% in New Hampshire and 17% in Alaska. See Tables.

    Some of the district-to-district differences may be attributable to varying reporting practices for immigration offenses among the U.S. attorney offices. Historically, petty offenses were not included in the official counts published by the Department of Justice for U.S. Attorney offices. However, the erratic recording practices even now make distinguishing "petty" matters from more serious (Class A) misdemeanors somewhat difficult.

    While data compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for FY 2004 show higher numbers of immigration prosecutions than recorded by U.S. Attorney offices, the overall patterns noted above are similar. In particular, court data confirm that the Southern District of Texas leads the country in immigration prosecutions and has experienced a large surge in volume during FY 2004. In fact, court data indicate that there were over 19,211 prosecutions in Texas South while U.S. attorney's office recorded only 17,136. In addition to apparent under-counting of petty immigration prosecutions in Texas South, court data indicate significant under-recording by U.S. attorney offices in Arizona and in the Western District of Texas. See Table.

    The Law Is the Law

    Most DHS immigration prosecutions were brought under one of three laws:

    • 8 USC 1324 (bringing in and harboring certain aliens)
    • 8 USC 1325 (entry of alien at improper time or place)
    • 8 USC 1326 (reentry of deported aliens).

    Figure 9. Click for larger image
    The choice of charges, however, varied markedly by the kind of federal court they were handled by. In federal district court, for example, the more serious charge of re-entry by a deported alien (Title 8 Section 1326) was used in 59 percent of the convictions. In magistrate cases, on the other hand, 96% of the cases were for the less serious charge of improper entry by aliens, according to the records of the U.S. Attorneys. See Figure 9.

    The growth in these prosecutions also varied by charge. Between FY 2003 and FY 2004 the number of convictions under two out of three of these laws in fact fell. These two statutes were the ones more commonly relied upon in district court. In the case of 8 USC 1326 (re-entry of deported aliens) convictions were in fact down by nearly a one thousand -- from 10,217 during FY 2003 to only 9,245 in FY 2004. See Table. But last year's convictions were substantially up from the levels of five years ago of 6,540, and prosecution filings were up between 2003 (11,134) and 2004 (12,866).

    In contrast, the prosecution of cases for the less serious charge of the entry of aliens is sharply up. It is this increase of petty misdemeanor, charges under 8 USC 1325 that accounts for a great deal of the growth in the overall number of immigration cases in the past year. And most of this growth was recorded as being brought in the Southern District of Texas. See Table.

    As noted earlier, only a handful of DHS immigration prosecutions are classified by the Justice Department under one of the terrorism program categories. Of the total of 37,765 DHS immigration cases in FY 2004, the Justice Department said that only 11 were believed to be actual terrorists -- three classified as domestic terrorists, one as a financial terrorist, and seven as international terrorists.

    In addition to these terrorism categories, however, the Justice Department also has a category it calls "anti-terrorism". This area, according to the department's data manual, covers cases brought by the prosecutors that were "intended to prevent or disrupt potential or actual terrorist threats where the offense conduct is not obviously a federal crime of terrorism."

    Listed in the somewhat murky "anti-terrorism" category, there are several sub-categories with the largest concerning 105 DHS immigration situations. All together, however, during 2004, only 145 of the departments immigration prosecutions were classified as involving terrorism or anti-terrorism.

    Questions Raised by a Closer Examination

    At first glance, the Justice Department data about DHS immigration enforcement in FY 2004 and the first half of FY 2005 suggests that the overall quality of the cases had seriously declined. That would seem to be the obvious conclusion from the finding that the median sentence for these cases --half got more, half got less -- had gone from 15 months in 2003 to one month in 2004. Similarly, the median time spent on each case dropped from 131 days in 2003 to only 38 days in 2004.

    • Sentences: A more detailed examination, however, based on an analysis of the sentences imposed according to the primary statute cited in each of the thousands of cases, would indicate something very different.

      Figure 10. Click for larger image
      Not unexpectedly, as shown in Figure 10, sentences vary markedly by court. In the magistrate court cases 47% received no prison time during FY 2003 and 2004. In the district courts, however, the median sentence during the same period was 18 months.

      Trends over the last five years show little change in the sentences meted out in magistrate court (see Table). Each year, about half of all magistrate court convictions do not result in prison.

      However, the large jump in magistrate cases in FY 2004 (see Figure 10), caused by the spurt in magistrate convictions in Texas South, has meant that a much larger proportion of the total immigration workload has been made up of misdemeanor rather than felony charges. Because misdemeanor sentences are lower, this has pulled the median sentence from 15 months down to only one month for DHS-immigration convictions overall (see earlier Figure 3).

    • Processing Times: Similarly, the large jump in magistrate cases also pulled down the typical number of days DHS-Immigration cases took to process through the courts.

      The length of time it takes the government to process the immigration cases from the moment they are referred by the investigators to the time when they are finally disposed of in any way is much less in magistrate courts than it is in district court. In the magistrate courts the median processing time in 2004 was 0 days -- in other words more than half were completed on the same day they were filed in magistrate court. While magistrate processing times have always been fairly short, 2004 set a new speed standard -- down from 16 days in 2003. By comparison, cases processed in district court required a median time of 145 days in FY 2004 and 141 days in 2003.

      Interestingly, the more than two week decline in magistrate court processing time between 2003 and 2004 is attributable to the handling of cases in Texas South. When analyzed separately, the median processing time in Texas South has dropped from 21 days in 2003 to 0 days in 2004. In the remainder of the districts, however, the median processing time actually rose slightly from 15 days in 2003 to 16 days in 2004. It would appear that Texas South is speeding defendants through its magistrate court proceedings (see Table).