Border crackdown jams US federal courts
Fingerprinting of immigration detainees and prosecution of repeat border-crossers are driving the heavier caseloads.
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Tucson is the busiest of the border patrol's Southwest sectors, with the most apprehensions of illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. Although apprehensions are down in Tucson – as well as along the entire Southwest border – the numbers of prosecutions are up.Skip to next paragraph
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In March 2007, for example, US agents apprehended 52,688 individuals in the Tucson sector, compared with 63,583 in March 2006. But it processed 559 prosecutions this past March – 64 more than in the previous March.
Prosecutors, defenders struggle, too
The added caseload has challenged a justice system already under strain. The US Attorney's office in Arizona, for example, was essentially under a hiring freeze for the past two years and only now is receiving enough funds to fully staff its offices – and pursue some of these immigration-related cases. The Federal Public Defenders offices are also inundated with clients to represent.
"The system is overwhelmed, and it's a lot harder to provide individualized attention to the client that is, frankly, required of us," says Milagros Cisneros, an assistant federal public defender in Phoenix. "The [government's] emphasis on numbers [of cases referred for prosecution] is making it very, very difficult to do this job."
John Roll, chief judge of both federal district courts in Arizona, feels the full impact of those numbers. "Our plate is full," says Judge Roll. "You can't add an unlimited number of agents and not have additional judicial resources to process those individuals."
He sees a "tremendous difference" between 1991, when he was first appointed to the bench, and now. The federal court in Tucson where he works, which is closer to the border than the US court in Phoenix, handles two-thirds of all criminal cases for the state of Arizona, Roll says. Between September 1996 and December 2006, the federal caseload increased by 94 percent in the state. The federal caseload just for the district court in Tucson jumped 113 percent in that 10-year period. In 1996, there were 1,800 criminal felony filings, and in 2006, there were more than 3,500, Roll says.
Moreover, he adds, while the average number of sentencings per federal judge is 100 a year, each of the five Tucson judges now averages 604 per year.
The Arizona district of the federal court is ranked fourth-busiest of the 94 districts in the number of felony filings per judgeship. The District of New Mexico is ranked first, followed by the District of Western Texas and the District of Southern Texas.
Answer: more federal judgeships?
Sens. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona introduced legislation late last month to create 10 new permanent and temporary federal judgeships for the US district courts to deal with the backlog of immigration-related cases.
"Increasing numbers of apprehensions along the Southwest border have led to a tremendous backlog of immigration-related cases in the federal courts," Senator Kyl said in an April 24 statement. "Adding more judges to the courts where the backlog is the greatest, as this bill does, will help alleviate the burden on our court system."
That help can't come soon enough for Chief Judges Roll and Vázquez. Vázquez says she was confronted with another emergency Friday. She is looking into an allegation that a young man detained and held in a jail along the New Mexico border didn't receive proper medical care and, as a result, his foot had to be amputated.
"I find that disconcerting as a chief judge because we have so many more in our system than it was meant to bear," says Vázquez. "If we decide as a nation we are going to be aggressive with a particular crime, so be it. But the resources have to follow."