The stakes were high for a Honduran man as he sat in a patrol car after being pulled over for drunken driving.
Hector Mercado-Castellanos, 42, was in the United States illegally. He had returned to Oklahoma City after being deported in 2004 for three drunken driving convictions and attempting to elude a police officer.
His son, Hector Escalante, 18, ambushed Oklahoma City police officer Katie Lawson after she responded to the drunken driving call on Aug. 29, prosecutors say. The 28-year-old officer was shot several times with a semi-automatic rifle but survived.
Thursday, Mercado-Castellanos was sentenced in Oklahoma City federal court to 16 months in prison for re-entering the United States illegally after previously being deported. He is among a growing number of people who are being prosecuted for illegal re-entry after deportation.
So far this year, 10 illegal re-entry cases have been filed in federal court in Oklahoma City. On Jan. 5, a total of 15 defendants were indicted, pleaded guilty, or were sentenced on charges of unlawful re-entry into the United States.
In 2008, 13 were filed the entire year. That numbered jumped to 26 in 2009 and 54 last year.
Felons who unlawfully return to the country after being deported can face federal prison sentences of up to 10 years. Then, they're deported again. Violent felonies can drive sentences up to 20 years.
Federal prosecutors do not often lose these cases. In fact, most never make it to trial, said Bob Troester, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Oklahoma City.
“The fact that they're here is like ‘exhibit A,'” Troester said. “As a general matter, most of them end up pleading out.”
And many of them, like Mercado-Castellanos, end up coming back again for family, work and other reasons.
Of those indicted this month, several had been deported and returned three or four times, court records show.
Dan Kowalski, a Texas-based immigration attorney and editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, said it's a no-brainer why many take the risks.
“If your family is in the U.S., you'll risk anything to get back to them,” Kowalski said. “And if your family is in Mexico, and you need to feed them, you'll do anything to get a job to earn money to feed them. You will risk jail or prison.”
Carl Rusnok, regional spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the stiff consequences for returning illegally after a deportation should deter some from returning.
He said new agents have been added to the area over the past few years as well as a new supervisor of enforcement and removal operations. This could be a factor in the increasing numbers of cases referred to prosecutors.
“These re-entry cases help us maintain the integrity of the immigration system,” Rusnok said.
Most frequent charge
Nationally, illegal re-entry is the most frequent lead charge in immigration prosecutions, followed by bringing in and harboring aliens, according to the most recent monthly data provided by the nonprofit project Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse based at Syracuse University.
“We are concerned with making sure the public is safe,” Troester said.
He said the top priority of federal prosecutors includes the violent offenders and those who pose a danger to society.
Five of the 10 men indicted this month are considered aggravated felons. This includes violent crimes such as murder, burglary, drug trafficking, fraud and burglary. Three had no prior felony records. The rest had other previous felonies.
Some who are deported were previously removed from the country after being caught during traffic offenses.
Others had been caught in the country and removed but came back and were caught, this time committing a federal crime.
AT A GLANCE
Unlawful re-entry cases prosecuted