Immigrant Smugglers Avoid Prosecution

Elliot Spagat, AP, May 19, 2006

SAN DIEGO—The vast majority of people caught smuggling immigrants across the border near San Diego are never prosecuted for the offense, demoralizing the agents making the arrests, according to an internal Border Patrol document obtained by The Associated Press.

“It is very difficult to keep agents’ morale up when the laws they were told to uphold are being watered-down or not prosecuted,” the report says.

The report offers a stark assessment of the situation at a Border Patrol station responsible for guarding 13 miles of mountainous border east of the city. Federal officials say it reflects a reality along the entire 2,000-mile border: Judges and federal attorneys are so swamped that only the most egregious smuggling cases are prosecuted.

Only 6 percent of 289 suspected immigrant smugglers were prosecuted by the federal government for that offense in the year ending in September 2004, according to the report. Some were instead prosecuted for another crime. Other cases were declined by federal prosecutors, or the suspect was released by the Border Patrol.

The report raises doubts about the value of tightening security along the Mexican border. President Bush wants to hire 6,000 more Border Patrol agents and dispatch up to 6,000 National Guardsmen. He did not mention overburdened courts in his Oval Office address Monday on immigration.

The report was provided to the AP by the office of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has accused the chief federal prosecutor in San Diego of being lax on smuggling cases. Issa’s office said it was an internal Border Patrol report written last August. It was unclear who wrote it.

The lack of prosecutions is “demoralizing the agents and making a joke out of our system of justice,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents agents. “It is certainly a weak link in our immigration-enforcement chain.”

The 41-page report says federal prosecutors in San Diego typically prosecute smugglers who commit “dangerous/violent activity” or guide at least 12 illegal immigrants across the border. But other smugglers know they are only going to get “slapped on the wrist,” according to the report.

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