TUCSON, Ariz. — Yuma County is footing the bill to prosecute immigrants arrested by federal agents but not charged by the federal government, the sheriff's office said in a scathing letter on Thursday.
Capt. Eben Bratcher says Yuma authorities have jailed and prosecuted about 140 immigrants in the past year and that that's cost taxpayers about $1 million in jail time and other costs. In most cases, the U.S. Border Patrol or customs officers arrest immigrants suspected of committing crimes. But the U.S. Attorney's Office, in charge of prosecuting federal crimes, often declines to move forward, Bratcher says.
"They think it's better served by the local authorities. Our point on that is you're costing us an arm and a leg to do your job," Bratcher said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona said he was reviewing the letter the sheriff's office sent Thursday but that it could not comment on the matter yet.
But although federal prosecutions of immigration violations have been declining in the past year, they're at an all-time high when compared to historical data, experts say.
Susan Long, a statistician and professor who examines data for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, said the government is prosecuting more immigrants than ever before even if the numbers have been declining.
"I think it's important to look at what's going on because different border communities are experiencing different things at different times and they have different policies. A lot of this is discretionary as to whether or not you're going to prosecute illegal entry and re-entry," Long said.
Immigration prosecutions in Arizona were down 15 percent between July 2014 and July 2015, according to data compiled by TRAC.
For Bratcher, that means more drug smugglers and immigrants who use false identification are getting off the hook too easily.
"We don't believe that letting these people go is doing anything to protect our border," he said.
Bratcher said local authorities have been charging immigrants arrested by the federal government with state statutes. He gave the example of a man who was caught transporting 30 pounds of methamphetamine at a border crossing but whom federal prosecutors declined to pursue.
Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, said a lower number of apprehensions and few resources could contribute to the decline in prosecutions.
But he said prosecution of immigration violations have been "wildly higher" than they were even a decade ago.
There were about 28,000 immigration-related federal charges in 2001. Last year, there about 81,000, he said.