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' annual year-end report on the judiciary. More than three-fourths were accused of illegally re-entering the United States after having been sent home before.
Immigration cases increased by about a fifth over the previous year and made up a third of all new criminal filings in U.S. district courts in the government spending year that ended Sept. 30. The statistics were compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Wendy Sefsaf, spokeswoman for the pro-immigrant 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.
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.
He also noted that increases in fraud, marijuana trafficking and sex crimes cases helped push the number of criminal cases to the highest level since 1932, the year before the repeal of Prohibition.
The number of cases excludes less serious crimes that are handled by federal magistrate judges. In 2008, there were nearly 80,000 immigration cases in all, including those dealt with by magistrate judges, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a private group at Syracuse University.