Minor Offenses Make Up Most Immigration Cases

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

Most of the Department of Homeland Security's immigration enforcement work is consumed not with stopping terrorists and unraveling their support networks, but with relatively minor administrative violations, according to a new analysis of federal records.

DHS authorities filed charges against more than 800,000 people in U.S. immigration court between 2004 and 2006, but only 126 of them were accused of terrorism- or national-security-related crimes, according to the study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Of that number, 41 were removed from the country, four of them on terrorism charges.

Routine violations, such as entering the country illegally or overstaying a visa, made up 86 percent of deportation cases, the study found.

Thirty-one other people were referred for federal prosecution in U.S. criminal courts as terrorists or terrorist financiers by Homeland Security investigators or by the FBI with DHS assistance.

"Traditional regulation of immigration to this day remains central to the activities of both" of DHS's main enforcement agencies -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- study authors David Burnham and Susan B. Long wrote.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the report politically motivated, ill-conceived and fundamentally mistaken about how the department's enforcement strategy targets "security risks and criminals in a post-9/11 world."

"Terrorists do not show up at ports of entry to say, 'I'm here, I'm a terrorist, take me into custody,' " Knocke said. "By being tough and being serious about enforcing the rule of law, you make it increasingly difficult for security risks to exploit the system."

Department officials noted that U.S. authorities often charge suspects with less-serious crimes in immigration proceedings because tougher charges are harder to prove and the ultimate penalty of deportation is the same. In other cases, defendants may face relatively minor charges in exchange for cooperating in terrorism probes. Tougher U.S. screening overseas of visitors may also weed out suspects before they arrive.

For the report, TRAC analyzed millions of Justice Department immigration court and U.S. prosecutor records dating to 1992.

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