A fed­eral judge

Reen­try pros­e­cu­tions sharply in­creased in East­ern Dis­trict last year


has spo­ken out against a sharp in­crease in North­ern Vir­ginia in the pros­e­cu­tion of im­mi­grants who reen­ter the coun­try after de­por­ta­tion.

A fed­eral judge has spo­ken out against a sharp in­crease in North­ern Vir­ginia in the pros­e­cu­tion of im­mi­grants who reen­ter the coun­try after de­por­ta­tion.

“I hope this is not the start of a pat­tern for this year,” Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said in Alexan­dria fed­eral court last week, not­ing that there were six such cases sched­uled for the first Fri­day in Jan­uary. “I think this is not the best use of ju­di­cial or Jus­tice Depart­ment re­sources to keep see­ing these types of cases.”

She added that she would like that mes­sage to be re­layed to G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. at­tor­ney for the East­ern Dis­trict of Vir­ginia.

The de­fen­dant be­fore her that morn­ing, Ra­mon Adrian Ochoa Paz, ended up in fed­eral court after serv­ing time in Prince Wil­liam County for ag­gra­vated sex­ual bat­tery of a child, a felony. But in fed­eral court, his only al­leged crime was com­ing back into the coun­try after be­ing de­ported in 2000. He is some­thing of an out­lier; in the ma­jor­ity of the 224 cases of felony reen­try after de­por­ta­tion that were filed in the East­ern Dis­trict last year, ini­tial ar­rests in­volved mis­de­meanor of­fenses, most com­monly drunken driv­ing. Ar­rests for mis­de­meanor as­sault and pub­lic in­tox­i­ca­tion are also com­mon.

For­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff

Ses­sions made im­mi­gra­tion cases a na­tional pri­or­ity, and the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Alexan­dria is one of many that re­sponded to the call. U.S. Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in his 2018 re­view that there was a 40 per­cent in­crease na­tion­ally in de­fen­dants charged with il­le­gal reen­try last year. After drug crimes, im­mi­gra­tion of­fenses are the most com­mon fed­eral charge, and most are il­le­gal reen­tries.

The vast ma­jor­ity of these cases are pros­e­cuted at the bor­der, where im­mi­grants are caught cross­ing il­le­gally. The East­ern Dis­trict of Vir­ginia ranked sixth among non-bor­der dis­tricts in il­le­gal reen­try pros­e­cu­tions last fis­cal year.

The East­ern Dis­trict, a large and high-pro­file of­fice led by a prose­cu­tor who worked un­der Ses­sions, has seen a par­tic­u­larly sharp rise in such cases, from 78 filed in 2017 to nearly three times that num­ber the fol­low­ing year.

The num­bers were as high or higher un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama through the end of 2014, when the White House took uni­lat­eral ac­tion to change na­tional de­por­ta­tion pri­or­i­ties. After that move, the num­ber of cases dropped sharply in Alexan­dria, along with sev­eral other dis­tricts across the coun­try.

Terwilliger de­clined to com­ment, but in re­cent months, he has been high­light­ing cases in which de­fen­dants have re­peat­edly come into the coun­try il­le­gally and com­mit­ted other crimes while here. They in­cluded a Sal­vado­ran man who was ar­rested for his fifth drunken driv­ing of­fense and who al­ready had a felony reen­try con­vic­tion and a Mex­i­can man with a sex­ual as­sault and drug record who had pre­vi­ously been de­ported.

“We are com­mit­ted to crim­i­nal im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment and will con­tinue to pri­or­i­tize these cases,” the U.S. at­tor­ney wrote in a news re­lease.

Terwilliger has si­mul­ta­ne­ously em­pha­sized his sup­port for le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, reg­u­larly tak­ing part in the Alexan­dria court­house’s monthly nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­monies. In his first-ever tweet, he wrote, “These in­di­vid­u­als ex­em­plify that we are both a na­tion of im­mi­grants and a na­tion of laws.”

Most un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants con­victed of com­ing back into the coun­try after de­por­ta­tion do not have pre­vi­ous felony or ex­ten­sive mis­de­meanor records and are usu­ally not sen­tenced to any in­car­cer­a­tion be­yond time served await­ing judg­ment be­fore they are handed over to U.S. Immi- gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral court records. The av­er­age sen­tence in fis­cal 2018 for those who did get prison time was five months, ac­cord­ing to data from Syra­cuse Univer­sity’s Trans­ac­tional Records Ac­cess Clear­ing­house — on the low end na­tion­ally and a de­cline from pre­vi­ous years.

In many cases, the ini­tial charges are dropped or left hang­ing be­cause the de­fen­dant is al­ready in ICE cus­tody. When the ini­tial crime is more se­ri­ous, a de­fen­dant is more likely to be pros­e­cuted on fed­eral charges after com­plet­ing a lo­cal sen­tence.

Al­though the Sal­vado­ran gang MS-13 is a se­ri­ous prob­lem in North­ern Vir­ginia and many of the un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants are from that coun­try, only four of the 224 de­fen­dants pros­e­cuted last year on a reen­try charge have been al­leged in pub­lic court fil­ings to have ties to the gang.

Only a few of those pros­e­cuted were not ar­rested for any rea­son other than re­turn­ing to the coun­try after de­por­ta­tion.

Of­ten, de­fense at­tor­neys in these cases ask to skip as much of the stan­dard court process as pos­si­ble, hop­ing to move a case quickly to sen­tenc­ing. Un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants rarely have the money to hire at­tor­neys; most of these cases are han­dled by tax­payer­funded pub­lic de­fend­ers.

Brinkema has chal­lenged the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies be­fore. She is­sued a pre­lim­i­nary in­junc­tion against the White House’s travel ban on seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries in 2017, say­ing there was “un­re­but­ted ev­i­dence” that the or­der was mo­ti­vated by “re­li­gious prej­u­dice.”

But in im­mi­gra­tion cases in­volv­ing a pat­tern of bad con­duct, she has not shied from im­pos­ing rel­a­tively long sen­tences.

Giv­ing one man with a his­tory of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and drunken driv­ing a 14-month sen­tence for re­cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally, she told him, “You’re a men­ace when you’re in this coun­try.”


G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. at­tor­ney in Vir­ginia

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