Federal prosecutions of immigrants soared to new levels this spring, as the Obama administration continued an aggressive enforcement strategy began under President George W. Bush, according to a new study released Thursday.
The 4,145 cases referred to federal prosecutors in March and April was the largest number for any two-month stretch since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was created five years ago, the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found.
The government's heavy focus on immigration investigations already is creating a heavy burden for the swamped courts along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose judges handle hundreds more cases than most of their counterparts in the rest of the country.
Federal authorities claim that workload would grow if Arizona's controversial new immigration law, which would allow every illegal immigrant to be caught and deported, were implemented.
"People already are working 10- or 12-hour days and on weekends to just meet the caseload," said Matt Dykeman, a clerk in the U.S. District of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where the number of cases referred by Customs and Border Patrol more than doubled from February to April this year. "It's not an eight-hour day, because you have to process them and get them in court for that detention hearing."
Some of the increase may be due to seasonal upticks in the flow of migrants, who typically tend to cross the border in time for the summer harvest, Dykeman said.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both investigative agencies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on TRAC's findings.
The nonprofit data research group obtained the latest figures from the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. Attorneys along the southwest border handle the bulk of cases referred by border agents, including felony prosecutions of immigration crimes and misdemeanors like improper entry.
Department of Homeland Security figures show that the number of illegal immigrants in the country has fallen in recent years. As of January 2009, an estimated 10.8 million people were in the country illegally, 1 million less than the 2007 peak, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
At the same time, deportations have been increasing, climbing from 185,944 in 2007 to 387,790 last year.
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