Federal authorities are cracking down on immigrants who were previously deported and then reentered the country illegally -- a crime that now makes up more than one-third of all prosecutions in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, a Times review of U.S. attorney's statistics shows.
The surge in prosecutions reflects the federal government's push in recent years to detect illegal immigrants with criminal records in what may seem the most obvious of places: the state's jails and prisons.
Immigration authorities have long combed inmate populations for illegal immigrants, but additional money and cooperation with local law enforcement have fueled an increase in such cases by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. The illegal reentry charge is the single most prosecuted crime in the office.
Prosecutors filed 539 such cases in fiscal year 2007, making up 35% of the caseload, compared with 207 in 2006 -- 17% of all cases. Statistics for the first four months of this fiscal year show the trend continuing.
Federal authorities touted the recent effort, saying the prosecutions serve as a deterrent for those who see the border as a turnstile. They said they were targeting violent gang members, career criminals and drug dealers who have returned to the country after being deported -- many of them repeatedly.
"They are some of the worst of the worst," said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington. "They are people that citizens of any community would want off the streets."
"I just wish that were true," said Jerry Salseda, a deputy federal public defender who has represented scores of illegal immigrants charged with reentering the country after having been deported. He and other critics say people who committed minor crimes years ago have been caught up in the wave of prosecutions.
Bruce J. Einhorn, a former immigration court judge, said the U.S. attorney's office should spend more resources going after smugglers rather than illegal crossers.
"That would do more to stop dangerous illegal immigration than by prosecuting a few more undocumented people who have reentered illegally," he said.
Einhorn also questioned the efficacy of the prosecutions, because people's motivations to return -- reuniting with small children and escaping poverty -- often outweigh time behind bars.
In years past, many of those now being prosecuted for illegal reentry would have simply been deported. Now they are being sent to prison first. Sentences can be as long as 20 years, but most defendants receive three to five years, prosecutors said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Los Angeles are largely responsible for the recent spike in prosecutions. In 2006, they created a nine-person team to scrutinize inmate populations for potential prosecution. ICE officials also placed an officer in the U.S. attorney's office to serve as a liaison with immigration officials on these cases. In addition, ICE agents look for possible defendants -- primarily gang members -- in communities around Southern California.
Prosecutions are likely to continue increasing nationwide as ICE expands its work in jails. Congress recently appropriated $200 million for the agency, which Myers said would be used to develop technology and to work with local and state officials to identify more illegal immigrants behind bars.
The effort in Los Angeles was recently cited by U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, who said Justice Department officials were reviewing it "with an eye toward expanding it to the Southwest border districts" and elsewhere.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said the cases make up a large percentage of the overall number prosecuted by the office, but they do not represent an undue drain on resources or hinder other types of prosecutions. That's because the reentry cases are easy to prove, he said, rarely go to trial and don't require much time.
To win a conviction, prosecutors need to prove three things: that the defendant is in the United States, that he or she is not legally permitted to be here and that the person had been formally deported in the past.
A side benefit of such easy-to-prove cases is that they can be made when there isn't enough evidence to convict illegal immigrants on other charges, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates tighter enforcement of immigration laws.
It's the same idea as when "you send Al Capone to jail for not paying his taxes," he said.
Curtis Kin, chief of the Domestic Security and Immigration Crimes Section of the U.S. attorney's office, which was created in 2006 in part to prosecute illegal reentry cases, chafed at the notion that most defendants are sympathetic.
"The people we go after are demonstrated threats," he said. "The No. 1 reason to do this is to protect the community."