For the first time, immigration violations now make up more than half of all federal prosecutions, easily outpacing drugs, fraud, organized crime, weapons charges and other crimes.
In the last fiscal year, 52 percent of all federal prosecutions - 69,636 cases - involved an immigration violation, compared to 63,405 prosecutions for all other federal crimes, according to a new study by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Clearinghouse, which sued the Justice Department to obtain the information.
"Imagine the other crimes that are not being prosecuted because immigration is such a priority," study co-author Susan Long told Fox News.
The two most common charges pursued by prosecutors relate to illegal entry or re-entry to the U.S. The penalty for a conviction on either charge can range from a few months to typically two years in federal prison for a person who re-enters the U.S. after being deported.
However, a more serious outcome from a conviction isn't jail, but a 10-year prohibition from entering the U.S.
"The worst consequence isn't that you go to jail for six months, but you are legallly barred from entering the U.S. for a decade," said Peter Nunez, a former U.S. Attorney for San Diego. "It really screws up immigration status. If word got out, from the White House on down, that the goal is to prosecute every single person who enters the U.S. illegally, and we don't care if you go to jail for an hour or a month, we want the conviction on the record - because that is the greatest deterrent you can achieve to prevent further illegal entries not only by those people but other people."
A study by the Congressional Research Service found that criminal prosecution was the number one factor in reducing recidivism, or illegal immigrant re-entry. The Border Patrol calls it "consequence delivery" and it was first rolled out in 2005 on a pilot basis called Operation Streamline.
Since the operation requires the cooperation of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the courts, its use was not widespread and immigrants quickly moved to other sectors to re-enter.
The Syracuse study found that Texas saw the most prosecutions, with almost 44,000, compared to just under 3,000 in California.
"When they say half of all criminal prosecutions are immigration related, I say 'so what'," said Jessica Vaughn, a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies. "These are bread and butter, slam-dunk cases. It is not a big deal to prosecute an illegal alien when you catch them in the act. To me, it is a dog-bites-man story. Most immigration cases are handled on an administrative basis."
While Long questioned the expense of prosecuting so many low -level offenders, Nunez said the cases are not complicated and do not represent say '50 percent' of a prosecutor's office budget. Under Operation Streamline guidelines, up to 40 defendants can be tried simultaneously before a judge in a trial lasting as little as an hour because typically the facts are not in dispute.
"If you are a previously deported immigrant and return to the U.S., it's a pretty easy prosecution," said Nunez. "The role of the prosecutor is to convict people as quickly and easily as possible. There is nothing wrong that."