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Chief justice says immigration cases at record levels in ’09

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press / January 1, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Immigration prosecutions rose to record levels in 2009 as the Obama administration kept up aggressive enforcement that began under President George W. Bush.

Nearly 27,000 people faced serious federal charges relating to immigration in 2009, according to Chief Justice John Roberts’s annual year-end report on the judiciary. More than three-fourths were accused of illegally reentering the United States after having been sent home.

Immigration cases increased by about a fifth over the previous year and made up a third of all new criminal filings in US district courts in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The statistics were compiled by the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

Wendy Sefsaf, spokeswoman for the proimmigrant Immigration Policy Center, said she expects the number of prosecutions to remain high until Congress passes a law that gives the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants a way to remain in the United States legally.

“Can we really afford to be spending this kind of time and money locking up people who essentially have come here to work?’’ Sefsaf said.

Obama campaigned in favor of overhauling immigration, including a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants already in the country.

As president, he has pledged to Latino groups and others to take up the issue in 2010, probably after getting the health care overhaul, climate change bill, and financial regulatory rewrite passed.

“Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No. This is going to be difficult,’’ the president said during a trip to Mexico in August. “It’s going to require bipartisan cooperation. There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable. And those are fights that I’d have to have if my poll numbers are at 70 or if my poll numbers are at 40. That’s just the nature of the US immigration debate.’’

Roberts’s brief report, with no commentary on the numbers, broke with a nearly 40-year tradition of chief justices highlighting the needs of the federal judiciary. Instead, Roberts said the courts “are operating soundly’’ and tacked on a summary of their caseloads.