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How the Department of Justice is Turning Non-Criminal Immigrants into Felons

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Legal Experts, Advocates and Affected Individuals Discuss DOJ Strategy of Prosecuting Immigrants for Reuniting with their Families

As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) completes its review of deportation policies and practices, there’s been little focus on another major player in the immigration enforcement machinery: the Department of Justice (DOJ).

On a press call today, lawyers, advocates, and impacted immigrants talked about the faces and facts behind DOJ’s egregious pattern of prosecuting established immigrants for “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry,” turning people without criminal records into “federal criminals” who then become “priorities” for deportation.

It works like this: Immigrants are referred to US Attorneys by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) field agents such as Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  US Attorneys rubber stamp these as “criminal prosecutions,” without any consideration for length of time in US or family ties.

It’s wreaking havoc in the immigrant community.  See here for a compilation of “The Faces behind ‘Illegal Entry’ and ‘Illegal Reentry,’” stories of immigrants who have been targeted for prosecution by US Attorneys despite extensive ties and roots in the United States. 

America’s Voice also released a new fact sheet, “The Facts Behind ‘Illegal Entry’ and ‘Illegal Re-Entry,’” summarizing points from recent studies about this phenomenon.  As the new fact sheet makes clear, DOJ is a key player in the concerted effort to justify the Obama Administration’s record numbers of deportations.  The Obama Administration is proud of the fact that they are deporting more ‘criminals’ than ever.  But they’ve twisted the definition of ‘criminal’ to the extreme, and are actively prosecuting people for the ‘crime’ of reuniting with their families.  Under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, deportations after conviction for illegal entry/re-entry tripled, and deportations after prosecution for any immigration offense rose 167%. TRAC reports that “the trumpeted increase in the number of ‘convicted criminals’ ICE has deported resulted entirely from jacking up the deportation of noncitizens whose most serious criminal conviction was a traffic or an immigration offense.”

David Leopold, Immigration Attorney from Cleveland, OH and Past President of American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained:

Attorney General Eric Holder should enforce the criminal provisions of the immigration law to keep the borders secure and American families safe and together.  DOJ’s limited law enforcement resources should be aimed at violent offenders and national security risks who illegally reenter the U.S. after deportation  not undocumented mothers and fathers who, sadly, are often driven to unlawfully return to the US out of desperation to be with and support their families who were left behind when they were deported. The uncompromising rigidity of our broken immigration system sometimes forces otherwise good people to illegally reenter the US after deportation. The Department of Justice should not be in the business of criminalizing the very people President Obama says he wants to help with immigration reform.

Jeanette Vizguerra is an immigrant mother of three U.S. citizens who was targeted by DOJ for reentry.  She shared her firsthand account with DOJ’s misuse of justice on the call today:

It was a difficult decision to return home to visit my dying mother, but I felt I needed to see her one last time. When I was detained and charged with reentry, the only difference for me is that I had so much community support and was released because of it.  In the case of illegal re-entries, there are many, many cases like mine, and most people aren’t given another chance. That’s why I’m going to keep working to make sure these policies are changed, not just for me and my children, but for everyone.

Added Andrew Nietor, immigration and federal criminal defense attorney from San Diego, CA and member of American Immigration Lawyers Association-San Diego Chapter Executive Committee:

The surge in illegal entry criminal prosecutions is inconsistent with the stated priorities of the administration, the efficient use of our federal courts and the ideals of treating everyone fairly in our system of justice.

Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice Education Fund, said:

Immigration accounts for more than half of all federal prosecutions.  It’s higher than drug crimes, which come in at around 15%.  That’s a shocking statistic.  People are being prosecuted every single day as federal felons for the simple fact that they returned to the U.S. to live with their families.  Individuals are arrested by ICE and the Border Patrol, rubber-stamped for prosecution by the U.S. Attorneys, convicted in turn-style trials, and then sent to federal prison before being deported.  There’s no consideration of who the individual is behind the case number.  Does he have a family that needs him?  Has she lived in the U.S. for decades, with no other problems?  Does this punishment actually fit the ‘crime?’  We’re asking the Department of Justice to live up to its name and bring justice back to the way it handles immigration enforcement.


·       America’s Voice: The Facts Behind “Illegal Entry” and “Illegal Re-Entry

·       America’s Voice: The Faces Behind “Illegal Entry” and “Illegal Re-Entry”

·       Listen to a recording of today’s call HERE.

333 Days Since Senate Passed its Immigration Bill; 31 Days Left Until Window of Opportunity Closes