Immigration Conflict Raised in Firings

Jennifer Talhelm, AP, March 21, 2007

During a congressional showdown over illegal immigration last spring, Justice Department officials found themselves scrambling to answer Republicans’ pointed questions about low immigration-related prosecution rates by U.S. attorneys on the southwest border.

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Internal e-mails released as a part of a congressional investigation show Justice Department officials conceded among themselves that they had “some concerns about asserting that the SO Cal U.S. attorney’s office has a strong record in this area.”

The e-mail exchange—between Associate Deputy Attorney General Lee Otis and other Justice officials in April 2006—is one of several contained in more than 3,000 pages of documents released over the past week.

The newest batch, released Wednesday, includes further references to intense criticism from Republican lawmakers about the priorities of several border-state U.S. attorneys.

Just months later, Lam, Arizona’s Paul Charlton and New Mexico’s David Iglesias were among eight U.S. attorneys abruptly fired with no explanation.

The dismissals have caused an uproar on Capitol Hill as lawmakers have demanded to know whether they were part of a purge to replace the prosecutors with political cronies or as a result of their work on political corruption cases.

All three border prosecutors were investigating political corruption cases at the time they were fired.

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The border-state U.S. attorneys were scrutinized at a difficult time for the Bush administration. The president was struggling to get wary House Republicans to back his immigration plan, which called for a guest worker program for foreigners and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the country now.

Many Republican lawmakers were calling for a border fence and tough restrictions on illegal immigrants.

The U.S. attorneys on the southern border prosecuted more than two-thirds of the criminal immigration cases in the nation in 2005. But lawmakers repeatedly questioned their priorities.

Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., now one of Lam’s strongest supporters, questioned Lam’s immigration prosecution rates, although Feinstein said she was satisfied with the answer that Lam was focusing on big cases.

Issa and 18 other lawmakers angrily wrote Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Oct. 20, 2005, about immigration prosecutions, particularly in Southern California.

“It is the responsibility of the Department of Justice to punish dangerous criminals who violate federal laws, and this includes criminal aliens,” the letter reads.

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Federal prosecutors’ resources on the southwest border—particularly Arizona—were “absolutely stretched to the limit,” wrote Rachel Brand, an assistant attorney general, in an e-mail to Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who recently resigned.

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