On US-Mexico border, justice isn't swift

The law-and-order focus presents federal judges with staggering case loads.

It's the last case of a long day in Judge Keith Ellison's courtroom - one of the busiest in the federal court system. Swamped with 900 cases a year - easily 12 times more cases than the average federal judge faces - he's shaking his head at the mess the system has made of the case before him.

The chained defendant, who'd already made a plea agreement and was awaiting a prison sentence, has just contradicted his earlier testimony by admitting he got paid to smuggle illegal immigrants into the US. The contradiction was a result of the chaos of the heavy caseloads of probation officers and public defenders. The judge now has to reconsider the sentence - prolonging the case and backing up others.

"I don't know what to say about this. Just about everything that could have gone wrong with this case has gone wrong," says Judge Ellison.

It's a typical day inside this federal courthouse, one of many along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, where the nation's desire for law and order comes up against the limits of administering justice.

Border courts are swamped because of the nation's increased focus on border security - and its failure to keep up with the money and new judgeships needed to handle the inevitable increase in court cases. The mad scramble to keep up means problem-riddled cases like the one before Ellison.

New judges needed

While border-court crews are used to working under the pressure of overwhelming caseloads, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have only increased their frustration and strengthened their resolve to do something about this assembly-line justice.

Getting Congress to listen is another story. Just this month, for instance, 1,600 US military troops took to Mexican and Canadian borders in a temporary move to bolster security at ports of entry.

But a bill that would create 18 new judgeships for five districts along the border has languished on Capitol Hill for years. At a time when the services of federal judges are needed more urgently than ever, experts say, solutions such as this can't be ignored.

"Many of us feel like that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike," says US District Court Judge Royal Furgeson in the Western District of Texas, which includes 420 miles of border.

Judge Furgeson has about 700 cases a year - more than nine times that of the average federal judge's 75. Everyone he's talked to agrees that the law enforcement emphasis isn't the solution.

To illustrate the point: Back when Congress was debating the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, many predicted that along with the ease of moving goods would come an ease in moving illegal drugs and immigrants.

So to counter that concern, in the years between 1994 and 1998, the number of Drug Enforcement Administration agents along the US-Mexican border grew by 155 percent, US Border Patrol agents by 99 percent, and Immigration and Naturalization agents by 93 percent.

By contrast, the number of federal judicial officers in the five border districts increased only 4 percent. Calling it a crisis, the Administrative Office of the US Courts predicts that within two years, these courts will be handling a third of all federal court criminal filings in the US.

And now, in its war on terrorism, Congress is talking about once again bolstering enforcement along the border. That worries many here who've been left to deal with the 210 percent increase in the number of criminal filings since 1994.

Beefing up the front end without regard for the back end isn't an unusual reaction when it comes to immigration policy, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tougher immigration laws.

"I don't think it's a result of malice, so much as a desire to rush a solution through," he says. "And, of course, there are cost issues. Hiring a lot of immigration inspectors and border patrol agents costs money, but people at least understand where their money is going. Hiring lots of extra lawyers is often more difficult to explain, even though they are just as important."

Drug cases increase

In some districts, such as the Southern District of California, the crisis is even more severe. The federal court in San Diego is perhaps the most overworked and understaffed in the country, with 492 cases per judge per year. However, since 1994, no new federal judges have been added to the bench.

Joe Sepeda, the US attorney in Del Rio, Texas, can relate. "There's a crush. But on the bright side, the days go by really fast," he says.

While he hasn't seen an increase in cases since Sept. 11, the distribution of cases he's prosecuting has changed. For instance, Mr. Sepeda estimates he used to have an equal number of drug and illegal immigration cases. Today, he has far fewer immigration cases (20 percent). But the number of drug cases has rocketed to 80 percent.

That's true all along the border, where illegal immigration continues to remain low while drug seizures are at an all-time high. While immigrants have become more apprehensive about crossing, drug traffickers have become more desperate - and thus, bolder.

Tom Lindenmuth, supervisory public defender in McAllen, Texas, says his increase in cases since Sept. 11 is mainly drug related and is coming from the five ports of entry in his area where security is at Level 1.

"Alert agents make more cases for us," he says in exasperation.

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