Rumbo Headlines Huge Increase in Texas Immigrant Convictions

Of 15,662 magistrate court convictions and jail sentences handed to undocumented immigrants in 2004 across the USA, 13,479 were gaveled by judges in South Texas. The unprecedented spike in criminaliztion and incarceration of migrants was documented last August by Syracuse University’s TRAC project, but lay dormant on the information landscape until the Spanish language newspaper RUMBO headlined the report in Tuesday’s edition.

The sizable use of magistrate courts as a strategy of criminalization and incarceration continued during the first six months of 2005 according to Syracuse figures, with South Texas magistrate courts issuing 4,609 of the 5,014 total magistrate court convictions recorded. Jail time for these convictions averaged about three weeks in 2004; two weeks in 2005. The August report is still listed at the Syracuse web site as a "New Finding" but source code for the narrative indicates it was released in late August of 2005.

The number of immigration convictions in state courts across the USA for 2004 nearly equalled the total of magistrate court sentences, bringing the annual total to a little more than 30,000. In state courts however, the average jail term was 23 months.

The overall number of immigration convictions nationwide jumped 58 percent in 2004, primarily because of the magistrate court activity in South Texas.

"When the changes in the overall immigration enforcement effort are examined, it would appear that the Bush Administration has in fact adopted an across-the-board get-tough policy: more referrals, more prosecutions and more convictions," says the Syracuse report. "The overall counts for the entire nation seem clear. Referrals climbed from just under 24,000 in FY 2003 to almost 40,000 in FY 2004 — an increase of 65%. In the same period, prosecutions rose 82% — from almost 21,000 to just under 38,000. And the increase in convictions was similarly up, 18,000 to 31,000."

What Syracuse says about "Texas South":

Texas South, originally established in 1902, currently is the seventh largest in the nation with over 7 million residents, 43 counties and more than 150 assistant U.S. Attorneys.

From December 2001 until June of 2005 the U.S. Attorney in Texas South was Michael T. Shelby. He is now an attorney with Fulbright and Jaworski, a major national law firm based in Houston. In his May 13 resignation statement, Mr. Shelby praised the work of his office in handling cases involving international terrorism, corporate fraud and public corruption, but did not mention criminal cases involving immigration violations.

Given the circumstances, this seems a curious lapse. According to the case-by-case information provided the Executive Office for United States Attorneys by the district he until recently headed, the office in FY 2004 prosecuted a total of slightly more than 21,000 individuals, 18,340 of whom it said were charged with immigration violations. By comparison, his office said, it only prosecuted 90 white collar crime matters, 35 internal security and terrorism matters and 15 official corruption matters.

For the federal prosecutors in Texas South handling immigration matters, the data show that in 2004 — the year when their enforcement effort absolutely exploded — their favorite charge was a section of 8 USC 1325, illegal entry, that previously had been cited much less frequently. Convictions in the district where the section of illegal entry statute law was the lead charge went from 304 in FY 2003 to 13,778 in FY 2004. This jump means that in the most recent complete fiscal year that 8 USC 1325 convictions made up an overwhelming majority of all immigration matters in the district. See Table.

Records from both the Justice Department and the courts show that many if not most of these cases are handled in a cursory way by magistrate judges rather than district court judges. For a flavor of how the process works consider the case brought in the Southern District of Texas against one Eduardo Garcia Nunez.

The complaint was filed against Garcia Nunez by Amador H. Carbajal, a senior agent of the Border Patrol, who said the defendant had been apprehended by an agent who was not named while wading across the Rio Grande River near Brownsville on October 30, 2004. On the next business day, at a brief hearing before Magistrate Judge John William Black, Nunez was formally charged with violating 8 USC 1325(a) (1) for "willfully, knowingly and unlawfully" entering the United States at "a place other than designated by an immigration officer in violation of the law." During the same short session, represented by Sandra Zamora Zayas, a public defender, the defendant was advised of his right to trial, the right to remain silent, the right to bring witnesses on his behalf. Nunez, waiving all his rights, pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 days of confinement.

The official minutes of the whole process required only a few lines of text:

Counsel was appointed to represent the Defendant. The defendant was advised of and waived the following rights: The right to trial; the right to at least thirty (30) days to prepare for trial before the Magistrate Judge; the right to remain silent; the right to bring witnesses and present testimony on his/her behalf; the right to confront and cross examine witnesses. The Defendant was arraigned on the charge(s) contained in the criminal complaint. The Defendant pleaded guilty to the charge(s) in the criminal complaint. The Defendant was sentenced as outlined in the Judgment signed this day. … (Entered 11/01/2004)

Neither Mr. Shelby, the former U.S. Attorney, nor the public affairs officer in the Texas South responded to written inquiries requesting their explanations for the recent abrupt enforcement changes in the district.

The sheer volume of DHS immigration referrals in Texas South (Houston) in FY 2004 (18,092) tower over the totals racked up by the four other districts along the Mexican border in the same year — 4,170 in Texas West (San Antonio) , 3,407 in Arizona (Phoenix), 2,801 in California South (San Diego) and 1,771 in New Mexico (Albuquerque)…..

The length of time it takes the government to process the immigration cases from the moment they are referred by the investigators to the time when they are finally disposed of in any way is much less in magistrate courts than it is in district court. In the magistrate courts the median processing time in 2004 was 0 days — in other words more than half were completed on the same day they were filed in magistrate court. While magistrate processing times have always been fairly short, 2004 set a new speed standard — down from 16 days in 2003. By comparison, cases processed in district court required a median time of 145 days in FY 2004 and 141 days in 2003.

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