Dewayne Nobles was arrested after Border Patrol agents found 11 illegal immigrants sitting on the attic rafters above his bedroom in his stepfather’s house in Texas.
Malik Jackson, nabbed at a highway checkpoint in California, told agents he was recruited by a high school buddy over Snapchat and was offered $300 to drive Mexican illegal immigrants and $600 to drive Chinese.
Luis Morales-Melendez stands accused of refusing to help as one of the group of illegal immigrants he was leading across the Rio Grande began to struggle and eventually drowned in the river’s swirling waters.
Jaime Chavez-Guevara was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by the crew of a container ship who said they found him stowed away on a run from Panama to Savannah, Georgia. It was the third time he was caught sneaking into the U.S., and he is facing a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
They are among the more than 100,000 prosecutions for immigration-related border crimes the Justice Department has brought in the past 12 months, setting an all-time record.
The surge is a defiance of Democratic presidential candidates, who have pushed the idea that illegally crossing the border — known in the criminal code as improper entry, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months of jail time — should not be a crime
The prosecutions still make up a small fraction of the total number of people jumping the border: more than 800,000 in fiscal year 2019.
But analysts said the increase shows the Trump administration’s priorities.
“These numbers are genuinely impressive,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “They are not just a result of more cases to prosecute — there have always been more than enough cases, too many, to prosecute. The numbers reflect the decision to make this a real priority, not just a token effort.”
The Justice Department brought more than 80,000 illegal entry cases in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30. That shattered the record set just a year ago, with 68,470 prosecutions. That topped the previous record, under President Obama, of 65,597 cases in 2013.
Another record was set for prosecuting illegal reentry, a felony punishable by up to two years on the first offense. Trump administration prosecutors filed 25,426 cases, topping the previous record from the beginning of the Obama years.
One of those was Chavez-Guevara, from El Salvador, who was found in 2017 and deported from Texas. He was nabbed and deported from Phoenix a year later. This time, he said, he received $6,000 from his girlfriend in Miami and used the cash to hire a smuggler to help him make the trip back.
He took a bus from El Salvador to Panama, where the smugglers ferried him to the Santa Linea, a cargo ship. He and one of the smugglers climbed up the anchor chain and sneaked in through the anchor hatch, according to court documents. The smuggler then showed Chavez-Guevara where he could hide during the trip to Savannah.
The crew discovered him along the way, and ICE was waiting at the port.
“There is zero tolerance for those who break the law to get here, and they don’t get extra points for persistence or creativity,” said Bobby L. Christine, the U.S. attorney in southern Georgia who led the prosecution, which netted a 60-day sentence.
Georgia is one of the reasons for the surge in prosecutions.
In 2016, during the Obama administration, Mr. Christine’s region brought just four immigration cases. Over the next two years, prosecutions skyrocketed 2,600%, he said.
One of those cases involved Eduardo Gonzalez-Frias, who was nabbed for illegal reentry.
Local authorities had charged him with vehicular homicide for driving while drunk, striking a guardrail, flipping his car into the Augusta Canal and leaving a passenger drowned in his car, but they couldn’t definitively prove he was the driver.
Gonzalez-Frias skated on the homicide charge and was given a 16-month sentence for vehicle infractions. He pleaded guilty to the illegal reentry charge, was sentenced in May to time served and was ordered deported once another local DUI charge was settled.
In addition to the illegal immigrants, the Trump administration is increasingly going after those responsible for smuggling them — the foot guides who lead them into the U.S., the stash houses that hold them near the border and the drivers who pick them up and transport them deeper into the country.
Prosecutors brought 4,297 cases in fiscal year 2019 — also a record, topping the previous high of 4,127 in 2006 and shattering numbers from the Obama years, when prosecutions at one point dipped to fewer than 2,800.
“It’s a little shocking to see how few smuggling prosecutions there were under the Obama administration, especially considering that is when the [unaccompanied alien children] crisis started, which was clearly a problem with smuggling,” Ms. Vaughan said. “Had they tried to do more against the smugglers, instead of ignoring it and then treating it as some kind of benign humanitarian flow, we might not have seen the problem get so out of hand.”
As it is, the smugglers have left a trail of death.
Prosecutors in Texas brought smuggling charges in one case in which a driver crashed a Chevrolet Suburban, killing six and sending nine others to the hospital. In a case out of San Diego in August, police found three dead people in the trunk of a car.
More common were cases like that of Nobles, the man who had stashed 11 illegal immigrants in the attic of his stepfather’s home.
He said he was being paid $1,200 for the group.
He pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Still awaiting trial is Mr. Morales-Melendez, who, according to ICE agents, was caught leading a group of 11 illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande and into the U.S.
When agents interviewed the illegal immigrants, who paid up to $19,000 a person to be smuggled, they learned that one of the group had drowned while crossing the river. Mr. Morales-Melendez saw the man struggling in the water and heard him yelling for help but let him drown, the witnesses told agents.
Mr. Morales-Melendez now stands charged with nine counts of smuggling in a case in which someone died — each one punishable by a potential life sentence.
The Washington Times contacted several immigrant rights groups about the numbers, but none of them responded to inquiries.
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