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Border crackdown jams US federal courts

Fingerprinting of immigration detainees and prosecution of repeat border-crossers are driving the heavier caseloads.

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2007


The US government's crackdown on illegal immigration is resulting in so many more felony charges against foreigners that the federal courts serving the Southwest border are overwhelmed and reaching for the panic button.

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The rising caseloads in five US district courts are a direct result of the beefed-up border patrol. Though tighter border security is deterring illegal entry, resulting in fewer arrests, border agents now have the manpower and resources to be vigilant about checking those in custody for criminal connections and outstanding warrants. They are also increasingly filing more-serious felony charges against repeat border-crossers, sending those cases straight to US district courts in the border area.

"The government front-loaded this system," says former immigration judge Joe Vail, now director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Houston. "It has almost tripled the size of the border patrol since 1996, and last year brought in the National Guard, but has done nothing to increase the personnel they need to process and adjudicate these cases, including federal court judges, prosecutors, federal public defenders, plus the support personnel you need to do all this."

View from Judge Vázquez's bench

It's a situation with which Chief Judge Martha Vázquez is all too familiar. From her bench at federal court in Santa Fe, N.M., she presides over the busiest of America's 94 federal court districts. Just last week she was interrupted in her courtroom to deal with a life-threatening emergency involving a prisoner who had agreed to testify against a criminal organization – but had then been jailed with members of that same group.

"It takes a lot of choreography to keep those defendants away from each other, and in this case each agency involved thought the other had taken care of it," a weary Judge Vázquez said during a phone interview late Friday, having directed that the prisoner in question be moved to a safe location. "But this is what happens when our caseloads become huge. There's not enough marshals, enough US attorneys, judges, court officers, courtrooms – not enough of anything."

The US began laying the groundwork for the current prosecutorial overload as far back as 1996, with enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, says Mr. Vail. That law provided funds for the border patrol to more than double the number of agents along the Southwest border. It also introduced what's known as "reinstatement of removal," which means that any illegal immigrant who'd been deported by a US immigration judge – a misdemeanor – would be automatically subjected to reinstatement of that previous order if caught again trying to sneak into the United States. No new hearing before an immigration judge would be needed.

Moreover, under that law the illegal entrant can be charged with illegal entry after deportation, a felony – an option now being applied more often by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

Fingerprinting leads to more cases

An advance in technology also helps CBP and ICE generate more felony arrests. By the end of 2004, all border patrol sectors had been hooked up with the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. All people detained at the border are fingerprinted, and that digital print is immediately transmitted to the FBI in Washington. Within minutes, a report comes back indicating whether the detainee has been caught and deported before, and whether that detainee has a criminal history.

"It is one of the most useful tools we have," says Gus Soto, supervisory border patrol agent in Tucson. "We're finding that for every 10 people we're apprehending, at least one has a criminal record in the US, and these are people we are, of course, prosecuting."