Immigrant cases surge to record

Criminal prosecutions of immigrants by U.S. authorities surged to a record high in March, as immigration cases accounted for the majority – 57 percent – of all new federal criminal cases brought nationwide that month, according to a report published Tuesday by a nonpartisan research group.

Immigration cases also made up more than half of new federal prosecutions in February, reflecting a major emphasis on immigration by the Bush administration and a policy shift to expand the use of criminal, rather than civil, charges in its efforts to curb illegal immigration.

In March, according to the report, narcotics cases, the next-largest category, were 13 percent of new prosecutions by the Justice Department. The third-largest category, weapons cases, were 5 percent.

The report, by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data analysis organization affiliated with Syracuse University, was based on figures from the Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The group obtained the figures through the Freedom of Information Act.

The record number of 9,350 new immigration prosecutions in March was part of a “highly unusual surge” that began in January, the report said, and represented 73 percent more new immigration cases compared with March 2007. Most cases were in districts along the border with Mexico.

“We've never seen such a surge at the national level,” said David Burnham, a co-director of the Syracuse group. “They are deciding that the use of criminal law is the way to solve the border patrol problem.”

In a crackdown that has accelerated since last June, when immigration legislation supported by President Bush failed in Congress, the administration has sought to show it is serious about enforcing immigration laws. In a new strategy, the authorities have brought an array of criminal charges against illegal immigrants stopped at the border or rounded up in raids at factories and other workplaces. Previously, illegal immigrants were generally charged under immigration law with civil violations.

Justice Department officials would not confirm the Syracuse group's conclusions, repeating criticism they have made in the past of the group's reports. A department spokeswoman, Carolyn Nelson, said in a statement that the clearinghouse “has a pattern of omitting certain statistics, resulting in misleading information regarding prosecutions.”