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Immigration is main charge in 52% of all federal prosecutions

With the possibility that the federal government under President-elect Donald Trump will use prior convictions to pursue up to 2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, new data shows that more than half of all federal charges are linked to immigration crimes, easily surpassing federal prosecutions for firearms, drugs, and fraud.

Immigration offenses factor into 52 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions in fiscal year 2016, although immigration prosecutions fell by 7 percent. All but three of the top 10 crimes pursued by federal prosecutors are related to immigration.

In FY 2016, which ended September 30, prosecutors filed nearly 70,000 cases using seven crimes related to immigration as a basis — including improper entry, reentry of a deported alien, charges related to human smuggling, charges related to passport misuse, and the use of fraudulent documents. 

The data was obtained from the Justice Department following a lawsuit by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University.

This easily outpaces the just more than 63,000 people charged with other federal crimes, and crimes relating to immigration were the top seven charges filled by federal prosecutors. Unlawful acts relating to firearms fell to the eight spot, followed by charges relating to drugs and fraud. 

Among the charges filed in federal courts, Homeland Security was the lead agency in 87 percent of cases — unsurprising since DHS includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which are the primary agencies that file cases relating to immigration. 

While immigration-related crimes outpaced other federal criminal prosecutions, the total number of immigration prosecutions in 2016 was down nearly 7 percent from the year before. 

Five years ago, courts in Arizona handled the most immigration charges, but the state's rank has been declining steadily as large numbers of immigrants have shifted to Texas. 

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In the last year, the district court that recorded the largest drop in immigration prosecutions — 26.3 percent — was Arizona, TRAC data showed. 

Meanwhile, the Southern District in Texas handled 24,549 prosecutions, driven in large part by influx of thousands of Central American families and children, who have shifted to the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas while fleeing from violence and endemic poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

Two weeks ago, CBP announced that it was adding tents as a temporary holding facility for up to 500 immigrants at the Guadalupe port of entry near El Paso in answer to a second large push of immigrants this year. 

According to statistics from CBP, this year nearly than 409,000 people, including nearly 60,000 children and 78,000 families attempted to enter the United States without authorization. 

This is down roughly 15 percent from 2014, when an influx of families and unaccompanied children, strained the agency's abilities in the Rio Grande Valley, forcing CBP to send children and their parents to facilities across the nation, including Nogales, Arizona. 

Despite these increases, the number of apprehensions are down throughout the southwest border, however, agency officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, have said that demographic shifts have made the mission more challenging. 

"Meanwhile, the demographics of illegal migration on our southern border has changed significantly over the last 15 years – far fewer Mexicans and single adults are attempting to cross the border without authorization, but more families and unaccompanied children are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America," Johnson said. " In 2014, Central Americans apprehended on the southern border outnumbered Mexicans for the first time.  In 2016, it happened again." 

"I have traveled to the southwest border 17 times over the last 34 months as Secretary and have seen this personally," Johnson said. "We are determined to treat migrants in a humane manner.  At the same time, we must enforce our immigration laws consistent with our enforcement priorities." 

Data from TRAC also showed that immigration prosecutions have accelerated since 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which set the stage for large-scale detention of immigrants in privately-run prisons, and the creation of new "consequence delivery systems" intended to deter illegal immigration by prosecuting immigrants for two civil crimes, illegal entry and illegal re-entry, as felonies. 

This includes Operation Streamline, a program that has failed to deter illegal immigration despite more than a decade of action and a cost of more than $7 billion, according to analysis by advocates for criminal justice reform. 

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Even as the number of people crossing the border continues to decrease, the immigration court system overload continues to worsen. 

There are now 521,676 cases backlogged in the federal immigration court system. Some immigrants wait up to 675 days for their cases to be heard.

While the wait times in Arizona are far below those in California, Texas and Colorado, nonetheless, immigrants might have to wait as long as 700 days for their immigration case to be reviewed by a federal judge. 

In Phoenix, at least 7,700 people are awaiting hearings, while in the Eloy Detention Center, nearly 1,286 people are awaiting hearings. 

In Tucson, less than 1,000 people are awaiting hearings, illustrating the dramatic differences in caseloads throughout the nation. Some courts may be handling nearly 69,000 cases, while other courts may be handling over a few hundred. 

This includes not only individual cases by thousands of cases involving women with children and unaccompanied children, who entered the United States without a parent or guardian. Nearly one-third of immigration cases involve women and children, according to data from the federal government. 

The federal government has tried to add more judges to the bench, but so far officials with the Executive Office of Immigration Review have only hired 34 new judges, bringing the number of the judicial corps to 273. Unlike federal judges who must be appointed, judges with EIOR are Justice Department employees.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The logo of the Corrections Corporation of America hangs over the Eloy Detention Center, which the private prison company runs under contract with immigration authorities.