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Immigration cases spark record federal prosecutions

Federal prosecutions for fiscal year 2009 reached an all-time high, fueled by a nearly 16 percent increase from 2008 in immigration cases, with local districts posting even larger increases.

A report - issued this week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University - analyzed data obtained from the Department of Justice.

The Eastern District of New York, which includes Long Island, had 172 cases filed against alleged immigration violators, a 62 percent increase from 2008. The Southern District, including Manhattan, had 340, more than double the previous year.

Nationally, the immigration violations - which made up more than half of all federal criminal cases - consisted largely of illegal entry into the country or re-entry after being deported. Local violations were largely for re-entry.

In 2009, there were 169,612 federal prosecutions and 91,899 were cases against illegal immigrants, the report said.

"The Bush administration was the beginning of a really sharp rise" in immigration prosecutions, said Susan Long, co-director of TRAC. "And that trend hasn't shown any indication of stopping under [president Barack] Obama."

In an e-mailed statement, Tracy Schmaler, a DOJ spokeswoman, said, "We are unable to verify data provided by TRAC as it routinely differs from data and statistics reflected in" department reports and data.

The numbers surprised some experts because Obama's administration has vowed to shift immigration enforcement to employers, rather than employees, and to immigrants who commit serious crimes. Only 13 employers were prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers, according to TRAC.

"There ought to be more prosecutions of persons committing serious crimes," said Donald Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. "You'd think there would be more serious prosecutions within that group - like smugglers."

Others said the continued rise could be Obama's strategy in selling immigration reform.

"It could be a very smart way for laying the foundation for immigration reform," said Hofstra Law School Dean Nora V. Demleitner. "It could document that this is an administration that is pro-immigration reform but at the same time is very committed to enforcing the law."

Patrick Young, director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, noted the vast amount of federal resources being spent on such cases. "It's kind of indicative of the need for immigration reform because you're basically tossing people who are essentially trying to come into the U.S. to work into the criminal justice system and spending tens of thousands of dollars on prosecution, and then tens of thousands of dollars more on incarceration," he said.

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