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Dispatches: US Criminal Immigration Prosecutions Harm American Families

In August of this year, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major new effort to refocus criminal prosecutions and reduce prison populations.  At a time when budgets are tight, he declared, “It’s imperative that we maximize our resources by focusing on protecting national security; combating violent crime; fighting against financial fraud; and safeguarding the most vulnerable members of our society.” Yet no current government initiative makes any effort at reforming the largest and fastest growing category of federal criminal cases: prosecutions for nonviolent immigration offenses.

Such prosecutions are now at an all-time high, according to just-released government data, reaching almost 100,000 cases in fiscal year 2013, and amounting to 50 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions. Some 93 percent of these prosecutions involved people charged with the offenses of illegal entry and reentry, and Illegal reentry prosecutions, in particular, have increased 76 percent under the Obama administration.

This is not surprising, because many of the people prosecuted for illegal entry and reentry once lived in the United States, where they often maintain strong family ties. The Obama administration is on track to deport 2 million people by 2014. In my research, I found that because deportees have no legal way to return, many—particularly parents of US citizen children—try again and again to reenter illegally. In some districts, criminal defense attorneys estimated 80 to 90 percent of reentry defendants had US citizen family. One US district judge, Robert Brack in New Mexico, who has sentenced over 11,000 people for illegal reentry, told me, “For 10 years now, I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day.” Nearly everyone serves a sentence in a tremendously expensive and overcrowded prison system.

In his August speech, Attorney General Holder recognized the need to do something about “the lives being harmed, not helped, by a criminal justice system that doesn’t serve the American people as well as it should.” The US Department of Justice should recognize that the almost 100,000 criminal immigration cases it prosecuted in 2013 are hurting American families and communities, as well as the non-citizens they charge.

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