Courts unable to keep up with border arrests
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 20, 2008 12:00 AM
The government has started cracking down on illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector. But limited resources in Arizona's federal-court system are blocking the goal of prosecuting everyone who enters the country illegally.
The Border Patrol has referred 757 cases to authorities since the government began prosecuting illegal crossers in the Tucson area on Jan. 14. Up to 42 are prosecuted daily, and there are plans to prosecute up to 100 cases a day in the busiest human-smuggling area on the border.
But federal courts in Tucson can hold only 60 immigration defendants a day, and even if they could handle the 100-a-day workload, that amounts to prosecuting only 10 percent of those arrested by the Border Patrol.
Still, officials expect the threat of prosecution and prison time to deter illegal crossers.
The Operation Streamline policy, which has proved effective in the Yuma Sector and two parts of Texas, involves filing charges against nearly everyone caught crossing the border illegally.
Mexican authorities confirm that illegal immigrants have been deterred from crossing into the Yuma Sector by the prospect of spending two weeks to six months in prison for the misdemeanor crime.
Historically, illegal immigrants have immediately been shipped back to Mexico if they did not have criminal records. Foreign criminals are deported after serving their prison sentences. And if they are caught re-entering illegally again, they are charged with felonies, which can carry sentences up to five years.
Demand on courts
The U.S. District Court of Arizona is the nation's busiest, presiding Chief Judge John M. Roll said. He said judges in his district sentence 500 felons a year, compared with a national average of 90. His office has asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lend magistrates.
U.S. Magistrate Glenda Edmonds said she and her colleagues in Tucson typically handle half a dozen pretrial hearings a day.
To meet the demand of the new flux of immigration cases, one magistrate takes them all for a week in a rotation system.
“If we get to the point where we get to 100 cases a day in this building, we will need at least one more magistrate,” Edmonds said.
Lawyers are also in short supply. The Department of Homeland Security has lent the U.S. Attorney's Office four lawyers to help prosecute the new immigration cases.
First Assistant Federal Public Defender Heather Williams said there are only 32 panel lawyers who are willing to handle Streamline cases on a contract fee from the government.
The court may increase the maximum caseload per lawyer or assign a public defender exclusively to immigration cases, Williams said, concluding that her office “will be able to handle fewer criminal cases.”
Operation Streamline was created to deter illegal immigration. The Yuma Sector saw a 70 percent drop in arrests last year at a time arrests borderwide fell 20 percent.
The policy was credited, along with extra border agents and improved fencing. Yet even in the Yuma Sector, where the Border Patrol arrests one-tenth of those arrested in the Tucson Sector, authorities have been unable to prosecute everyone.
The Border Patrol has referred 1,511 immigrants for prosecution since the program was extended to the entire sector in the fall. It made 4,066 arrests.
Courtroom holding space is a limiting factor in Yuma, too. Judges say they can handle up to 75 prosecutions a day, but because of space constraints, only 30 cases can be sent.
In the Tucson Sector, the Border Patrol has no immediate plans to phase in more than 100 prosecutions daily. That means at its peak, only one in 10 of those arrested can be prosecuted.
Still, Deputy Chief Robert Boatright said the clampdown is having results. He said that, in the 15-mile target area where the program was launched, a 79 percent recidivism rate has plummeted to 46 percent. Elsewhere in the Tucson Sector, immigrants re-enter 80 to 92 percent of the time.
“We've been able to gain control of that area, maintain control of that area and widen out that area,” Boatright said.
Tucson Sector agents arrested 11 percent fewer border crossers in January than they did a year earlier, although many believe this has as much to do with a slowing U.S. economy and Arizona's strict employer-sanctions law.
Boatright said even a 10 percent risk of being imprisoned appears too great for many immigrants.
“I've talked to detainees, and they say it's just not worth it to them,” said Ray Kondo, assistant chief in Arizona for the U.S. Marshal Service, which transports and houses the prisoners.
Effect on prisons
With federal detentions taking in the extra misdemeanor-immigration convicts, some prison-reform watchdogs worry that the prisons will run out of bed space and create a demand for more prisons or a crunch to release other criminals early.
Kondo said that won't happen because once prosecutions reach their quota, people will be deported as fast as they are convicted.
Even if Arizona's prisons get overloaded, federal prisoners can, and routinely do, get transferred to facilities throughout the country.
Reformists such as Judy Greene of Justice Strategies are unconvinced, knowing the government faces a million border crossers a year.
“This looks tough but accomplishes very little. It will increase pressure for expanding the detention systems,” she said. “It's going to cost a lot of money and drain resources from more important cases.”
Two weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Tucson Democrat, met for the fourth time with judges and federal agents about Streamline.
Her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, said Giffords supports the stronger enforcement and has been advised that it has worked elsewhere, but Giffords shares concerns about the drain on resources for the criminal-justice system.
“Those concerns are valid,” Karamargin said, “She wants these federal agencies to have the resources but doesn't want them wasted on something ineffective.”