Sunday, June 5, 2011

More Hispanics go to federal prison

TUCSON, Ariz. — They shuffle into the courtroom in shackles, still wearing the dust-covered clothes and shoes from when they crossed the desert into the U.S. from Mexico. The 70 illegal immigrants, mostly men and mostly in their 20s and 30s, fill the 16-seat jury box and seven rows of wooden benches normally reserved for the public in Tucson's gleaming federal courthouse.

The courtroom is expansive, with a regally high ceiling, and is filled with the pungent smell of dried sweat.

In only an hour or so, the dozens of immigrants will agree to plead guilty and be sentenced in a process that could play out for months for most federal defendants.

The scene offers a window into a federal immigration enforcement effort that is pushing the limits of the U.S. justice system, overwhelming federal judges and escalating the ranks of Latinos sent to prison.

Expedited court hearings along the border are a major force driving a seismic demographic shift in who is being sent to federal prison. Statistics released this week revealed that Hispanics now comprise nearly half of all people sentenced for federal felony crimes, a number swollen by immigration offenses. In comparison, Hispanics last year made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population.

Sentences for felony immigration crimes, which include illegal crossing as well as other crimes such as alien smuggling, accounted for about 87 percent of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the past decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission data.

The trend has divided lawmakers and officials in the courts and along the border. Some politicians believe the en masse hearings should be expanded to deter illegal immigration. Others question whether the system actually affects people seeking to cross the border, while some contend the programs distract prosecutors from pursuing more serious crimes.

Some of the expedited border court hearings are part of a program called Operation Streamline that began in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, and soon spread to other Border Patrol sectors. It is a departure from the old "catch and release" policy and aims to stem the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Before 2005, illegal crossers were sporadically charged with federal misdemeanors, but many Mexican immigrants were often simply driven back across the border.

Operation Streamline and other fast-track programs speed illegal immigrants through accelerated legal proceedings, where most guilty pleas come in Spanish and thousands of Mexican citizens end up locked up each year for entering the country without papers.

The first time someone is caught entering the country illegally usually results in a misdemeanor that leads to deportation or a maximum of six months in federal custody. If they are caught again — as often happens — they are charged with a felony count called illegal re-entry that carries at most a two-year prison sentence or more if they have a criminal history. Some felony charges ultimately are reduced to misdemeanors through plea bargains.

U.S. attorneys in numerous states, including the four flanking the southern border, have authorized accompanying fast-track programs for felony offenders that allow cases to be resolved at warp speed. The programs have raised concerns about defendants' constitutional rights and the sheer volume of work flooding the courts. Critics say the programs overburden the court system and distract authorities from prosecuting major crimes.

Just before 8 a.m., buses roll into the parking lot, ferrying dozens of illegal immigrants from a nearby prison and border detention facility, where they've been held since they were caught crossing.

On a recent day, 70 defendants crowded into a second-floor courtroom, their ankle and wrist shackles clanging. Lawyers whispered to their clients, who wore black headsets to facilitate Spanish translation.

Federal Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Marshall called up the men in groups of five to read them their rights and accept their guilty pleas to illegally entering the country. Most were sentenced to time served and likely would be taken to Mexico for deportation the same day.

The shackled men said only "No" or "Si" almost simultaneously when Marshall asked them questions. When she asked them how they plead, they said, "Culpable (KUHL'-pah-blay)," Spanish for guilty. And in a few hours, they had been counseled, arraigned, convicted and sentenced for misdemeanor illegal entry.

In another courtroom in the same building, at almost the same time, another group of immigrants still clothed in their dusty jeans was being prosecuted for felony immigration charges and other federal violations through a separate fast-track program that would allow them to begin serving time more quickly.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission tracks the number of people who repeatedly enter the country illegally in a broad sentencing category called immigration crimes. The number of people sent to prison for the primary crime of unlawfully entering or remaining in the U.S. jumped from 6,513 in fiscal year 2000 to 19,910 in fiscal year 2010. Many people also were sentenced for that crime plus other, more serious offenses.

Many federal prosecutors in border states say those penalties are making illegal immigrants think twice about trying to cross again.
"We've made tremendous progress and are moving in a direction where there are consequences of continuous efforts to cross the border illegally. The message has gotten back," said Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, whose office has hired 17 new prosecutors since he assumed his position in late 2009. "If that has resulted in a higher number of individuals in the overall aggregate system being of Latino descent, I would say that is a separate issue."

Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain recently introduced a bill to expand Operation Streamline in the Arizona courts and potentially elsewhere along the Southwest border. Kyl has often cited border patrol figures showing that immigrant apprehensions dropped 93 percent since the program began in Yuma in fiscal year 2006.

"Everybody knows where the bulk of the illegal immigrants are coming from, and if you're going to deal with the deterrent effect of putting some of those people who cross in prison for a while ... then naturally you're going to have a majority of those people be Hispanic," Kyl said. "Let's just stop illegal immigration and we won't have that problem."


Australian PM's Malaysia plan falling apart

Labor now urged to revive Howard's Pacific Solution by refugee activists

LABOR'S support base on border security is crumbling, with a key critic of the Howard government's Pacific Solution calling for its partial revival in preference to Labor's "nightmare" plan to send unaccompanied children to Malaysia.

Marion Le, a refugee lawyer, last night urged Labor to reopen the Nauru processing centre - the same facility she demanded be shut in 2005 because of concern about the treatment of asylum-seekers.

She was backed by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, who accused Labor of failure on refugees and said asylum-seekers would receive better treatment in Nauru than Malaysia.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, 14 state Labor MPs signed a petition condemning the plan to send unaccompanied minors to Malaysia as part of the refugee swap.

Opposition to Julia Gillard's Malaysian solution hardened yesterday after news that a draft agreement over her plan to exchange 800 boatpeople for 4000 confirmed refugees processed in Malaysia excluded any reference to human rights.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen guaranteed the final agreement would address human rights concerns, but further inflamed his critics by revealing he would send unaccompanied minors to Malaysia.

Labor announced its plans to transfer asylum-seekers to Malaysia last month as a means of discouraging people-smuggling. It argued that if asylum-seekers knew they could be sent to Malaysia once they reached Australia they would be less likely to risk the voyage. But refugee advocates and the Australian Greens have condemned the deal, noting that Malaysia did not observe UN protocols for handling refugees and, in the past, asylum-seekers had been publicly caned.

Yesterday, Ms Le said it was time for Labor to "bite the bullet" and reopen Nauru, which was mothballed in 2007 after Kevin Rudd took office. Her position puts her in agreement with Tony Abbott, who has demanded the Prime Minister "pick up the phone" to the government of Nauru.

"The place itself is not the problem . . . the situation on Nauru is much better than on the mainland and in Malaysia," Ms Le told The Weekend Australian. "The detention centre needs to be operated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Reopening Nauru would be far better than all the nightmare ideas this government has put forward."

Ms Le, who visited Nauru in 2003 and 2004, said children and unaccompanied minors on the island were properly fed, taken to school and given access to sporting activities and fishing. According to the UNHCR, child refugees in Malaysia do not go to school and are not housed in refugee camps, surviving instead in low-cost flats.

Mr Burnside said if it was a choice between Malaysia and Nauru, he would choose the latter. "Nauru is certainly the less worse, but both are unacceptable." Mr Burnside said Labor should be ashamed of the "scandalous" Malaysian deal, which was "as bad as the Pacific Solution".

"In one way, it is worse because we know Malaysia has a bad track record in its treatment of asylum-seekers," he said. "The idea of sending unaccompanied minors there as well makes it more disgraceful. This is being driven by raw politics. They're behaving like the Howard government."

Mr Bowen said the final agreement with Malaysia would reflect Ms Gillard's insistence that there must be proper regard for the human rights of asylum-seekers. "Let's see this agreement play out," Mr Bowen told ABC radio. "There will be a range of protections to operationalise the commitment given by the Prime Minister of Malaysia about respect for human rights."

Mr Bowen said he was not prepared to make exemptions for children because this would encourage people-smugglers to entice children on dangerous voyages to Australia in leaky boats.

He said the use of Nauru would not break the people-smugglers' business model. "If you go to Nauru, you would end up back in Australia - that's what happened before," he said.

In 2001, there were 44 unauthorised boat arrivals in Australian waters carrying 5516 people, including the Tampa. The Howard government then brought in the Pacific Solution, and in 2002 there was just one unauthorised boat arrival carrying one person. From 2003 until 2007, when Labor won power, there were 17 boats carrying 287 people. As of last night, there were 5976 people in immigration detention in Australia. There have been 25 boat arrivals this year.

Former Howard government immigration minister Philip Ruddock said Labor had attacked the Pacific Solution and was not prepared to "lose face" by reopening the Nauru centre. "In my judgment, they should have simply pocketed their pride and said, 'We made a mistake in criticising the Howard government and the approach they took. We now have to put all of those measures in place to bring this insidious people-smuggling trade to an end'."

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young declared Labor was providing no leadership or compassion. "I think compassionate thinking Australians are sick to death of being taken down this false road of a race to the bottom with no true leadership," she said. "I would be suggesting no one is sent back to Malaysia. That's the Greens' position."

Labor faced criticism on the issue from 14 West Australian Labor MPs, with frontbencher Ben Wyatt saying he was appalled and embarrassed by the federal government's position.

"Federal Labor has lost its way by now making the decision to brutalise and penalise children caught up in terrible circumstances of asylum," he told AAP. "I'm a former army officer, and I fully understand and support strong border protection policy . . . but this is an appalling decision and I'm embarrassed."


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