MATAMOROS, Mexico -- At shelter run by the Catholic Diocese in Matamoros, immigrants get a place to rest and a meal on the risky journey north.
Migrants at the shelter say they will cross the border illegally for one reason: Jobs.
“I go to America to work," said Gervacio Ramirez, a native of Oaxaca who worked in a deli in New York city for several years until he was deported.
Jobs lure migrants north and are the reason many risk arrest to return to the United States once they are deported.
“The majority of those I have visited with usually already have jobs waiting for them flat out,” said Urbino Martinez, chief deputy for the Brooks County Sheriff’s office.
The county has become a hotspot for human smuggling and a dangerous region for immigrants traveling through the rugged ranch land on the way to jobs in Houston, Dallas, Austin and other cities.
“Something is in line for them,” said Chief Martinez. “It’s just a matter of getting there and they start working.”
But undocumented workers, who get caught trying to cross the border more than once face felony charges in federal court.
“I sentence more people than anyone else in the country,” said Judge Brack, a federal judge in the District of New Mexico.
Since his appointment by President Bush in 2003 Brack has sentenced more than 12,000 immigrants who’ve appeared in his Las Cruces courtroom.
“The profile of the people I see, they don’t have any criminal history,” said Judge Brack.
In a rare interview the judge is speaking out as the Congress hammers out a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“Our ethics actually allow for us to inform a political debate if we have gained by virtue of what we do an expertise or a unique perspective,” he said.
The number of illegal border crossings has declined sharply in the last decade but now 90 percent of those caught are prosecuted.
“All of them are employees never once an employer,” said Judge Brack.
Employers face penalties for violating immigration laws and hiring undocumented workers but for a variety of reasons they’re rarely punished.
It is difficult to prove employers knowingly hired undocumented workers. Some job applicants present fake identification or use real documents that are not their own to get hired.
But there are employers in various industries including agriculture, construction and some service jobs that rely on undocumented workers as a reliable labor force.
“At various times over our history, we’ve asked these folks to come. We’ve encouraged them to come. We have looked the other way when they came,” said Judge Brack.
A crackdown in recent years has led to mass deportations and divided thousands of families.
“And I’m just hoping as a result of this immigration reform, that we’re humane, that as a nation we take into account the role we’ve all played in creating this situation," Judge Brack said.
Judge Brack has written numerous letters to President Obama and members of Congress asking that family reunification be part of any immigration reform bill.
In a letter dated March 25th, the same day president Obama attended a naturalization ceremony at the While House, Judge Brack shared the stories of several children coping with the deportation of one or both parents.
“It is arbitrary and senseless to afford a path to citizenship to those lucky enough to avoid my courtroom, while doing nothing to alleviate the harm already done,” wrote Judge Brack.
In earlier letters he recounted a 21-year-old man brought to the United States when he was five who was deported to “a country he has never known as his own.”
The young man was a high school graduate who married a cheerleader, held down a full-time job and supported his wife and five-year-old son.
He was deported to Ciudad Juarez in 2010 when drug violence peaked in that city and before the Obama administration approved deferred action for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
“I considered how differently things might have turned out for him had the Dream Act passed. Surely, we as a nation are better than this.” wrote Judge Brack.
In another letter, the judge explained the case of a 75-year-old man from Mexico who came to the U.S. under the Bracero guest worker program in 1959.
He had been coming back and forth to work on farms for 53 years until he was arrested in 2012, charged with a felony re-entry and deported.
The judge recalled the man’s reaction in his courtroom.
“He’s stunned. He has no sense of why all of the sudden he’s treated as a criminal when all of these years he was rewarded with labor, with employment when he got here,” Judge Brack said.