LOS ANGELES - Immigration-related offenses are now the leading type of federal prosecution, constituting more than 40 percent of cases compared, with 22 percent for drug crimes, according to federal crime data.
Many immigrants are now prosecuted because they try to cross the border again after being deported, according to a report released this week by Human Rights Watch.
Often, they are so desperate to get back to their families in the United States that prison time is not a deterrent, the report said. In the past, people with no prior criminal record would have been deported without being prosecuted.
According to Tuesday's report, "Turning Migrants Into Criminals," immigration prosecutions for illegal entry or re-entry increased to more than 85,000 in 2013 from about 12,500 in 2002.
Until about a decade ago, most people prosecuted for immigration violations had criminal histories that included violent crimes or firearms offenses.
Then federal prosecutors began taking more immigration cases in which the defendant had no prior convictions or a minor criminal record. A misdemeanor conviction for illegal entry is now enough to trigger a felony prosecution if the person is caught trying to enter the country a second time.
Illegal entry is a misdemeanor punishable by as much as six months in prison. Illegal re-entry has a maximum sentence of two years, but prior criminal convictions can raise the limit to as many as 20 years.
The number of federal prisoners serving time for immigration violations has grown to 22,526 in March 2013 from slightly more than 10,000 in 1999.
Prosecution rates vary greatly across border regions. In Southern California, only 7 percent of prosecutions are immigration-related. In the South Texas district, more than half of prosecutions are for immigration violations. In New Mexico, more than 70 percent of federal prosecutions are for illegal entry or re-entry.
Citing another study, Human Rights Watch researchers put the cost of incarcerating immigration violators at $1 billion in 2011. The costs include not only housing them in prisons but also money spent on prosecutors, public defenders and courts.
"I think what's really interesting is we're living in a time where state governments and state prison systems are saying, 'How can we reduce the number of nonviolent offenders? It doesn't make sense to lock people up that are not dangerous,' " said Grace Meng, the report's author.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The report recommends that immigration violators be criminally prosecuted only when they have recent convictions for serious, violent felonies. Prosecutors should not take cases in which the immigrant has close family ties in the U.S. or fears persecution abroad, the report said.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Arizona dropped to third place this year in the country's Top 10 federal districts for the prosecution of immigration-related offenses, with 11,476 prosecutions.
In 2012, Arizona U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said that 80 percent of the individuals detained under his jurisdiction were arrested on an immigration charge, and he echoed the concern that resources were being drained from more important security concerns, such as activity by Mexican organized crime.
In 2008, the Tucson Sector became part of several along the Southwest border to implement Operation Streamline, a program designed to create a zero-tolerance policy and discourage future illegal immigration.
In the past five years, more than 70 people without legal status have been processed daily under Operation Streamline, and the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill calls for $50 million in additional funding for the federal court to triple that number.
Heather Williams, until recently the first assistant federal defender in Tucson, has estimated that the cost of defense attorneys for Operation Streamline in Tucson alone would amount to $2.9 million for fiscal year 2013.
- Perla Trevizo