Image: Agents Patrol Texas Border To Stop Illegal Immigrants From Entering U.S.
Scott Olson  /  Getty Images
Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants apprehended near the Mexican border on May 28 near McAllen, Texas. During the 2009 fiscal year 540,865 undocumented immigrants were apprehended entering the United States along the Mexican border.
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updated 7/15/2010 11:46:39 PM ET 2010-07-16T03:46:39

Federal prosecutions of immigrants soared to new levels this spring, as the Obama administration continued an aggressive enforcement strategy championed under President George W. Bush, according to a new study released Thursday.

The 4,145 cases referred to federal prosecutors in March and April was the largest number for any two-month stretch since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was created five years ago, the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found. They ranged from misdemeanor illegal entry to prosecutions of immigrants with criminal records.

The government's heavy focus on immigration investigations already is creating a heavy burden for the swamped courts along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose judges handle hundreds more cases than most of their counterparts in the rest of the country.

Federal authorities claim that workload would grow if Arizona's controversial new immigration law were implemented. The new law requires police, while enforcing other laws, to check the immigration status of anyone they have a reasonable suspicion is in the country illegally. It will take effect July 29 unless blocked by a court.

"People already are working 10- or 12-hour days and on weekends to just meet the caseload," said Matt Dykeman, a clerk in the U.S. District of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where the percentage of cases referred by Customs and Border Patrol increased by 54 percent from February to April this year. "It's not an eight-hour day, because you have to process them and get them in court for that detention hearing."

Some of the increase may be due to seasonal upticks in the flow of migrants, who often tend to cross the border in time for the summer harvest or other temporary work, Dykeman said. Hundreds of acres of fruit and vegetable crops are ripening in California's Central Valley, for instance, where farm laborers flock in the warm months seeking jobs picking and harvesting.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both investigative agencies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on TRAC's findings.

The nonprofit academic research group obtained the latest figures from the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act. That agency also declined to comment on the findings.

U.S. Attorneys along the southwest border, from Texas to California, handle the bulk of cases referred by the border patrol.

Department of Homeland Security figures show that the number of illegal immigrants in the country has fallen in recent years. As of January 2009, an estimated 10.8 million people were in the country illegally, 1 million less than the 2007 peak, according to DHS.

At the same time, deportations have been increasing, climbing from 185,944 in 2007 to 387,790 last year.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Ariz. law faces first big court challenge

  1. Closed captioning of: Ariz. law faces first big court challenge

    >> right now in phoenix, arizona , a federal judge hearing arguments in one of many challenges to the controversial immigration enforcement law. it's a first court hearing for the law that thrust the immigration policy right back into the national spotlight. janet munguia is president and ceo of the hispanic civil rights organization , the national counsel of la raza . the president is in michigan and we will see him shortly, but as he is in michigan , and michigan and eight other states are joining arizona in trying to push back against the federal challenge. what does that tell you about the mood of the nation and support of arizona 's law?

    >> well, i think it's one thing to say that, you know, states are looking that the law and read it that way, but really, our interpretation is the need for the department of justice and this government to assert responsibility over this area of law is what absolutely needs to be happening. otherwise, you will continue to have other states try to take this issue on themselves. this is the purview and responsibility of the federal government . it's important that we act to address this issue and to seek comprehensive immigration reform now and that really is the best solution. otherwise, you will get a patchwork of states putting together laws that are going to be unenforceable because they're unconstitutional. the real call now is for the congress and the president to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform .

    >> that is so unlikely, though, given the political context right now and, you know, is arizona wrong in saying that the federal government hasn't done anything and without the ? federal government doing anything it doesn't really have the argument about preemption. states have no choice, but to act on their own.

    >> well, i think that's right. there's a lot of frustration because our immigration system is broken, and i think the elected officials in arizona believe they needed to act. the problem is that this is the wrong law. this law will not solve the immigration problem and in fact, it will wreak havoc on many who are citizens in arizona and that is why the department of justice has to act to assert its responsibility and more than that, the department of justice acting alone isn't enough. we need congress and the president to move forward and, you know, there are a lot of competing priorities, but if the result is going to be states that enact laws that are going to undermine our constitution and be an affront and undermine the civil rights of many in our country, in particular, hispanics, well, then we need to act and it has to be a priority. we need comprehensive immigration reform and that will ultimately be the best solution to all these states acting independently.

    >> how frustrating that the lawsuit is on the issue of preemption and not racial profiling . the attorney general would probably say when asked that it's not right. there's no proof of it yet because it hasn't happened.

    >> we believe that it is not only unconstitutional, but would result in racial profiling . i think the department of justice has us take this one step at a time, but our expectation is that if the federal judge does not join this law that there will be a follow-up suit. we would urge the justice department to do a follow-up suit on the racial profilings if it is enacted.

    >> this is what john mccain had to say on fox last night a number of years ago. he was a big supporter of comprehensive reform and this is his new position now that he's in a very tough primary race.

    >> more and more, i am convinced that this is about solidifying the hispanic vote. it's just not a reasonable lawsuit to sue a state for doing what the federal government should have been doing. it doesn't make any sense.

    >> does that give you very little hope? his new position, john mccain 's new position, give you any hope that there will be any kind of republican support?

    >> well, it's really disappointing to see john mccain of all people who has been at the heart of all of these rich discussions about a comprehensive immigration reform to do a complete switch and to now support the dang fence when he was opposed to the dang fence before he was in this election. talk about trying to score cheap political points. we're seeing a direct conversion of someone who was and has been a war hero and statesman and who is now running against a demagogue and is trying to outrun his demagogue colleagues. i understand politics has to play into this, but for us this is about the merits and what's right and what's wrong and this law is wrong especially when it comes to the latino community, and we are a growing electorate as senator mccain mentioned and it is important for folks to know that we're going to be watching. we're going to take a stand on looking at who's with us and who isn't with us on this issue.

    >> fair warning and, of course, you're referring to that commercial build the dang fence with john mccain . janet munguia, thank you.

    >> thank you.

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