APRIL 27, 2007
While the U.S. government has dedicated billions of dollars to border enforcement by adding barriers, cameras and Border Patrol agents, it has neglected a federal court system overwhelmed with immigration-related felony cases.
The burden of these cases has put federal courts along the Southwest border in a crisis, forcing judges to handle the nation’s heaviest case load by working weekends and seeing as many as 150 defendants in a day.
Judges in the five federal districts that include southern and western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California handle one third of all felonies prosecuted in the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts. Most of the cases involve drug trafficking or illegal immigrants accused of committing serious crimes.
Federal judges in New Mexico – a hotbed of illegal immigration – are the most overworked, handling an average of 397 felony cases in 2006 compared with the national average of 84. The system is so overwhelmed that the court’s chief judge and the district’s federal prosecutor went on a Mexican radio show to warn potential violators of the punishment for entering the United States illegally.
Federal authorities have for years estimated that about 1 million people cross the southern border annually, but many of them were simply sent back to Mexico for violating U.S. law. The court crisis began in late 2005 when the Department of Homeland Security decided to jail and prosecute the criminals rather than release them.
The enforcement initiative, Operation Streamline, was announced with great fanfare as collaboration between several federal agencies, including the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Since they clearly didn’t plan for the effect it would have on the court system, Operation Streamline has been put on hold because there aren’t enough judges to hear cases. Authorities have quietly returned to the old “catch and release” policy.
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