Feds crack down on illegal immigrants in Michigan

June 18, 2011

When Troy police spotted Miguel Rojas-Villanueva last October, the 26-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico was passed out behind the wheel of his pickup.

It was 1 a.m., and Rojas-Villanueva was stopped in the center lane of northbound I-75, near Rochester Road, with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the limit at which someone can be convicted of drunken driving.

Six months earlier, authorities had sent him back to Mexico for driving drunk in Troy on a suspended license and cocaine possession.

This time, they took a different tack with the man who has illegally entered the U.S. five times: They prosecuted him in federal criminal court.

He got 12 months in prison, plus deportation and a felony conviction that dashes any hope of legally rejoining his wife, a U.S. citizen, in Rochester Hills.

He's one of nearly 150 illegal immigrants prosecuted in a federal crackdown in eastern Michigan since January 2010.

The initiative has sparked criticism from those who say it's a waste of money.

But David Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School, said immigration laws must be enforced, even though he says they are sometimes unfair and need to be changed.

"You can argue that it's a questionable use of prosecutorial resources, but re-entering the country illegally is a felony, and it's time we started to take deportation seriously," he said.

Illegal immigration crackdown a waste, some lawyers, experts say

Authorities have plenty of ways of nabbing illegal immigrants.

Many are arrested during routine traffic stops. Some are tripped up when they try to cross the border.

Cesar Tomas Hernandez, 43, an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was turned in by an informant.

Immigration agents confronted him in March while he sat in his 2007 Jeep Liberty outside a Romulus restaurant.

They said Hernandez readily admitted to being in the U.S. illegally after serving prison sentences in New York for drugs and weapons violations, and had a phony New York driver's license, a handgun and a stash of fake cocaine.

Hernandez, who has been deported three times, is jailed on federal charges of illegally re-entering the U.S. and of being a noncitizen in possession of a firearm. The charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

He's one of nearly 150 immigrants to be prosecuted in eastern Michigan since early 2010 in a federal crackdown on illegal immigrants who repeatedly re-enter the country.

"When people are here illegally and engaging in criminal behavior, or repeatedly disregarding deportation orders, we have an obligation to enforce and promote respect for the law," U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said of the initiative.

But many criminal defense lawyers, some judges and members of McQuade's staff said -- unlike in Hernandez's case -- they think the office is wasting federal resources and jail space on some of the immigrants: Those who were here to work, had minor run-ins with the law and who are facing six months or less in federal custody. Critics said they should be expelled quickly, not prosecuted.

"The vast majority of these cases involve guys who have gotten picked up on traffic offenses and have nothing to do with national security," said Federal Defender Miriam Siefer, whose staff works many of the cases.

She said she has complained to McQuade without success.

But authorities say the program creates a deterrent and rewards those who come here legally.

"Spending three or four months in the Wayne County Jail with people you don't identify with can be a real game changer," said Jonathan Goulding, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official on loan to McQuade's staff.

"It's a relatively small investment in the overall scheme of things," he said.

The prosecutions accelerated after McQuade became U.S. attorney in January 2010 and moved the responsibility for prosecuting the cases to her National Security Unit.

That May, ICE loaned Goulding and 25 other lawyers to U.S. attorney's offices around the country to prosecute such cases.

Since then, illegal re-entry prosecutions in eastern Michigan have tripled -- from 29 cases in 2008 to 92 in 2010. Fifty more cases have been filed this year.

Prosecutors are targeting immigrants who have previously been removed or deported and who have had run-ins with the law.

The maximum penalty for illegally re-entering the U.S. ranges from two years for first offenders to 20 years for those deported after convictions for a serious felony in the U.S.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Grand Rapids wasn't loaned an ICE lawyer, but said its cases have steadily risen since 2006, after illegal immigration became a national priority.

Nationally, there were 7,152 re-entry convictions in the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, 2010 -- a 22% increase over 2009, ICE said. It said it has removed or deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants in each of the past three years.

Authorities said most of the prosecutions involve Mexicans because they constitute most of the illegal immigrants in the U.S., thanks to a common border and economic conditions that drive them north in search of jobs. But some Canadians and other nationalities also are being prosecuted.

Federick Hernandez Rodriquez, 29, a Mexican national, was sentenced in April to a year and a day in federal prison after illegally entering the U.S. a dozen times since 1999.

Magali Ojeda Villagrana, 30, who has lived illegally in the U.S. off and on since she was 16, is another. Villagrana, who was living on a farm near Jackson, was arrested with two other illegal immigrants from Mexico at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel in November after she took a wrong turn while looking for a restaurant.

Agents surrounded her pickup after she squealed the tires trying to flee.

Villagrana, who had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault in Adrian in 2003, pleaded guilty in December to illegal re-entry and was sentenced to the 41 days she had spent in federal custody and then deported. Her passengers received similar treatment.

"The travesty here is for her two children, 5 and 11, who have never lived in Mexico," said Deputy Federal Defender Penny Beardslee, who represented Villagrana. "If they had charged her with a misdemeanor, or not prosecuted her at all, she might have had a chance to seek legal status for the kids' sake.

"I begged the U.S. Attorney's Office to make an exception in her case, and they wouldn't do it," Beardslee said.

Some legal experts said prosecuting illegal re-entry cases is an easy way for authorities to make the public think they're combating illegal immigration.

"On paper, it looks great, but in reality, who are they prosecuting? And what are they prosecuting them for?" said David Leopold of Cleveland, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I'm not sure this kind of use of tax dollars is making America safer."

Hispanic leaders in metro Detroit have complained recently that federal immigration agents have engaged in racial profiling -- stopping legal immigrants in their quest to find those here illegally.

Lidia Reyes-Flores, CEO of Latino Family Services in southwest Detroit and who organized a protest June 11 to decry immigration sweeps at her agency, said she has no problem with McQuade's initiative.

"My complaint is about profiling, not about people with criminal records," she said.

Occasionally, a Canadian gets caught in the federal net.

Arnoldus Jeroen Reekers, 54, of Windsor was initially charged with illegal re-entry. He was accused of lying to border officers at the Ambassador Bridge in April about his Canadian criminal record, including arson and sexual assault.

Court papers said he and his girlfriend were on their way to Detroit Metro Airport to fly to Acapulco, Mexico, to celebrate his efforts to conquer the root of his criminal past -- alcohol and anger.

His lawyer, Martin Crandall of Detroit, said Reekers didn't divulge his record at the border because he didn't want to embarrass his girlfriend in front of friends who were driving them to the airport.

Reekers pleaded guilty last month to making false statements, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He's free on a $20,000 cash bond, pending sentencing in July.

Crandall said Reekers has seen the light: "Next time he wants to go to Acapulco, he'll fly out of Toronto or Newfoundland."