WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- The number of people prosecuted for immigration offenses in federal courts more than doubled from 1996 through 2000, the Justice Department reported Tuesday. There were 6,605 defendants in 1996; 15,613 defendants in 2000.
A new law in 1996 authorized increases in U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service hiring. As a result, the number of INS law enforcement officers grew from 12,403 in 1996 to 17,654 in 2000. Two-thirds of the new officers were Border Patrol agents.
The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics said in a prepared statement that about 75 percent of the increase in referrals from the INS to U.S. attorneys for immigration offenses between 1996 and 2000 occurred in five states: Texas, California, Arizona, New York and Florida.
Those same five states received the greatest number of new INS officers.
Over a longer period of time the number of immigration offenders serving federal prison sentences increased almost nine fold, from 1,593 to 13,676 adult men and women between 1985 and 2000. That was more than twice the rate of increase for the entire federal prison population.
The department said a major portion of this rise was attributable to changes in federal sentencing law that increased the likelihood of a convicted immigration felony offender receiving a prison sentence -- from 57 percent in 1985 to 91 percent in 2000 -- in lieu of some lesser punishment.
The growth was also the result of increased sentences and time actually served, which increased from about four months in 1985 to 21 months in 2000, the department said.
The increase in the number of immigration offenders serving time in federal prisons accounted for 14 percent of the overall growth in the federal prison population from 1985 to 2000. Non-citizens convicted of immigration or other crimes, such as drug offenses, accounted for a one-third of that increase.
Half of those charged with immigration offenses during 2000 were accused of re-entering the country illegally; 25 percent with improper entry; 20 percent for alien smuggling, and 5 percent for misusing visas or other immigration offenses.
The Justice Department said that criminal history played a significant role in whether someone was charged or not. More than two-thirds of defendants charged with an immigration offense had a history of previous arrests; 36 percent had five or more prior arrests.
Sixty-one percent of immigration defendants had a prior conviction history.
Overall, 96 percent of immigration offense defendants were convicted when prosecuted in the federal courts.
During 2000, 16,495 men and women referred by the INS to U.S. attorneys for prosecution were suspected of committing immigration offenses, the Bureau of Justice Statistics special report released Tuesday said.
Of those, 57 percent were Mexican citizens; 7 percent U.S. citizens, and 3 percent Chinese citizens.
Of the 14,540 federal defendants charged with immigration offenses during 2000, 92 percent were male; 87 percent were Hispanic, and almost 80 percent were from 21 to 40 years old.
In addition to immigration offenses, U.S. attorneys prosecuted an increased number of non-citizens for other crimes, especially for drug trafficking, which increased from 1,799 cases in 1985 to 7,803 in 2000.
The special report, "Immigration Offenders in the Federal Criminal Justice System, 2000," was written by BJS statisticians Marika F.X. Litras and John Scalia.