Ohio LE targets worst immigration offenders

Arrests related to illegal immigrants on the rise in state; enforcement targeting fugitives, repeat offenders

By Cornelius Frolik
Dayton Daily News

OHIO — Illegal immigration is the fastest-growing federal arrest offense in Ohio, and convictions for immigration-related crimes in the state also have been rising, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of federal data.

Federal law enforcement officials said they have focused on prosecuting repeat immigration violators, criminal noncitizens and people who pose a threat to public safety.

Officials said they have adopted measures to catch the worst undocumented offenders, including the fingerprint identification program implemented at county jails across the Miami Valley and nation.

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement prioritizes the arrest and removal of those who game the immigration system, including immigration fugitives or those criminal aliens who have been previously deported and illegally re-entered the country," said Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman for the office that covers Ohio and Michigan.

But some immigration-reform advocates said it is disappointing that authorities are arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating more undocumented residents who used to be processed in civil immigration courts or allowed to return to their native countries voluntarily. Advocates said federal authorities are wasting resources and taxpayer dollars by focusing on nonviolent, low-wage people who moved to this country in search of better jobs. It cost about $1.5 billion annually to incarcerate criminal aliens in federal prisons and reimburse state and local jails between fiscal years 2005 and 2009, according to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In Ohio, about 136 people were arrested and booked on immigration violations by federal authorities in fiscal year 2010, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data. It was an increase of 77 percent from 77 arrests in 2009.

Illegal immigration was the fastest-growing federal arrest offense across the nation between 2005 and 2009, rising by about 23 percent each year, according to the bureau. Other federal arrest offenses include illegal weapons, drugs, violent and property crimes, which all declined in Ohio in 2010.

About 84,750 suspects across the country were arrested and booked for immigration offenses by federal law enforcement agents in 2009, up from 38,040 in 2005. Arrests dipped by 3 percent to 82,430 in 2010.

Arrest and prosecution statistics vary from year to year based on police agencies' strategies, and federal prosecutors have followed consistent guidelines for the past several years when determining what immigration cases to pursue, said Fred Alverson, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio. He said the highest-priority cases involve suspects who pose a risk to public safety and those who flagrantly violate immigration laws.

"Numbers do rise and fall, and sometimes it reflects agency priorities as opposed to any crime trends," he said.

Alverson cautioned against drawing conclusions about enforcement trends based on only a few years of data. He said the numbers often bounce around.

Walls said his agency focuses on removing undocumented aliens who have broken criminal laws, recently crossed the border or repeatedly violated immigration laws or who are fugitives from immigration court. He said most illegal immigrants arrested by ICE and placed into deportation proceedings are encountered through programs such as Secure Communities, which was implemented in Miami County jails in 2010 and 2011.

In the program, fingerprints of all people who are booked are matched against a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It contains information about immigration violations. Secure Communities has led to the detention and deportation of about 135 illegal immigrants with previous records who were booked at jails in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties.

Some illegal immigrants who were deported had previous removals. A few were fugitives from immigration courts. One out of seven had previous felony convictions.

Walls said Secure Communities and other programs have contributed to record levels of removals, and 90 percent of people removed met one of ICE's priorities. The agency deported 396,906 illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2011, including 7,298 from Ohio and Michigan, according to federal data.

In addition to rising numbers of arrests and deportations, the number of people sentenced in federal criminal courts in Ohio for immigration violations also has been increasing, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. About 166 people in Ohio were sentenced in federal criminal courts in fiscal year 2010, up 219 percent from 52 in 2006. The number dipped to 125 in 2011 after growing every year between 2006 and 2010.

About one in 10 people sentenced in federal courts in Ohio were immigration offenders last fiscal year; immigration offenders accounted for 1 percent to 5 percent of convicted offenders from 1997 to 2008.

Illegal entry into the U.S. used to be the most common criminal charge in immigration cases, but illegal re-entry overtook it in the first half of the last fiscal year, according to the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Illegal re-entry is now the most common primary charge sought by federal prosecutors.

The average sentence for reentry was 14 months, the group said. Illegal entry is a petty misdemeanor; re-entry is a felony.

Mark Heller, staff attorney with the Ohio-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said federal authorities have wasted resources and money by arresting and prosecuting immigration violators who usually are low-wage workers who lack criminal records. It costs about $79 per day — or $28,835 per year — to incarcerate someone in federal prison, according to federal estimates.

Heller said that in 2005 the government started "Operation Streamline," a policy of prosecuting all unlawful crossers of the southern U.S. border, instead of the former policy of exercising prosecutorial discretion in bringing criminal charges.

In the past, first-time offenders were often processed in civil immigration court or allowed to return to their homelands voluntarily. But under Operation Streamline, authorities were required to bring criminal charges against all people. Heller criticized authorities for arresting and bringing charges in more cases that were previously treated as civil violations. He said authorities are imprisoning low-wage workers who then cannot provide for their families while at the same time costing U.S. taxpayers thousands of dollars per incarcerated person.

"This is a cruel and senseless policy for the vast majority of the cases," Heller said.

Copyright 2012 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

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