This story was co-published with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

PHILADELPHIA — Fred and Linda Ammerman, retirees who live in Upper Bucks County, looked a little perplexed as they entered a federal courtroom to attend the sentencing hearing for their gardener.

While the courthouse bustled with reporters covering the corruption trial of former District Attorney Seth Williams, Courtroom 8-B was eerily empty on that summer day. Almost nobody watches immigration cases, though they represent a significant portion of the federal docket.

“Are you the victims?” a court security officer asked them.

The Ammermans recoiled.

“Victims? What victims?” Linda Ammerman replied. “We’re with José.”

José De La Cruz Ramirez, 36, had been crisscrossing the border since he was a teenager, commuting between his family in Mexico and his livelihood in Pennsylvania. Eight times, he had been caught and removed, but he kept coming back, to his landscaping job and to the thoroughbred farm where he was considered a horse whisperer.

When he was captured again last April, the Trump administration threw the full weight of the law against him, indicting him for the felony offense of illegal reentry into the U.S. after removal.

Jose De La Cruz Ramirez, a gardener in Upper Bucks County, was criminally prosecuted before being deported to Mexico. (Courtesy of Linda Ammerman)

The increasing criminalization of immigrants like De La Cruz was a quiet phenomenon of the last year. It reflected both an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests across the country, and a federal directive to send repeat border-crossers to prison before deporting them.

“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last April. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch and release practices of old are over.”

After Sessions issued a memo urging more indictments, such prosecutions rose only slightly, by 3 percent, across the country last year.

In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, however, they shot up 64 percent.

That is still only 79 cases, which pales in comparison to the hundreds prosecuted monthly in cities like San Antonio or Houston. But the increase is one more indication of how Pennsylvania stands out for its aggressive immigration enforcement.

In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia said it was simply abiding by Sessions’ guidance. Increased ICE arrests in the region also played a role, it said.

If De La Cruz’s hearing was any indication, though, there are government employees who feel halfhearted about turning at least some immigrants into criminal aliens.

The gardener, swallowed up by his baggy prison coverall, sat handcuffed and expressionless while others debated his fate. The prosecutor acknowledged that he had no criminal record, and “comes to the United States to work and is actively supporting his children.” His federal defender described him as a kind of “poster child” for immigrants.

Linda Ammerman stood to address the court, crying before she began. She described how her relationship with De La Cruz had evolved from working beside him in her garden to including him in family gatherings. When her 74-year-old husband, who has a heart problem, was snowed in last winter, their gardener, by then their friend, showed up after working a 16-hour day to shovel their long driveway.

“Our own children wouldn’t have done this,” she said.

When it was his turn to speak, De La Cruz, his gaze cast downward, said only, “I ask you to forgive me for having offended this nation and I promise that I will never do it again.”

He faced two years in prison, but the prosecutor asked only for time served: the three months he had already spent behind bars. The judge agreed.

There was nothing more to deliberate — it was the best possible outcome for him in this new era. But in that nearly empty courtroom, U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro decided to go “off script,” in her words.

As a Puerto Rican, she identified with “the plight” of immigrants and considered immigration cases very difficult, she said.

“Although you stated that you ask for forgiveness for offending this country,” the judge told him, “I don’t think you have to ask forgiveness for that because there was no offense to this country except that you came in here illegally. You came here to do something honorable, which was to work.

Le deseo mucha suerte, señor,” she said in closing. “I wish you the best of luck, sir.”

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