- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — For all the tough talk in Washington on immigration, illegal aliens caught along the Mexican border have almost no reason to fear they will be prosecuted.

Ninety-eight percent of those arrested between Oct. 1, 2000, and Sept. 30, 2005, were never prosecuted for illegally entering the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data. Those 5.2 million aliens were simply escorted back across the Rio Grande and turned loose. Many presumably tried to slip into the United States again.

The number of aliens prosecuted annually tripled during that five-year period, to 30,848 in fiscal 2005, the most recent figures available. But that still represented less than 3 percent of the 1.17 million persons arrested that year. The prosecution rate was just less than 1 percent in 2001.

The likelihood of any illegal aliens being prosecuted is “to me, practically zero,” said Kathleen Walker, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Federal prosecutors along the nation’s Southern border have come under pressure from politicians and from top officials in the Justice Department to pursue more cases against illegal aliens.

But few politicians are seriously suggesting the government prosecute everyone caught slipping across the border. With about 1 million aliens stopped each year, that would overwhelm the nation’s prisons, break the Justice Department’s budget and paralyze the courts, immigration specialists say.

The Justice Department itself says it has higher priorities and too few resources to go after every ordinary illegal alien. Instead, the department says it pursues more selective strategies, such as going after alien smugglers and aliens with criminal records.

T.J. Bonner, the union chief for Border Patrol agents, said the most effective solution would be to dry up job opportunities in the United States by cracking down on employers who hire illegal aliens.

“The employers are the ones breaking the law,” he said, suggesting the creation of an “idiot-proof” system to check the immigration status of workers and the prosecution of any employers who knowingly hire those in this country illegally.

“It’s much like our tax laws: People don’t pay their taxes out of an overriding sense of citizenship; it’s a healthy dose of fear,” Mr. Bonner said.

Under federal law, illegally entering the country is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to six months in prison for a first time. A second offense carries up to two years. If an alien has been prosecuted and deported and then sneaks back into the country, he can be charged with a felony punishable by up to two years behind bars. Those with criminal records can get 10 to 20 years.

The federal figures on arrests and prosecutions were collected and provided to the AP by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said that 30 federal prosecutors have been added to the Southwestern border to handle the rising number of immigration and border drug cases and noted that securing more prosecutions would require hiring more judges and public defenders and building more courtrooms and jails.

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