Jennifer Talhelm, AP, April 27, 2007
Immigration-related felony cases are swamping federal courts along the Southwest border, forcing judges to handle hundreds more cases than their peers elsewhere.
Judges in the five, mostly rural judicial districts on the border carry the heaviest felony caseloads in the nation. Each judge in New Mexico, which ranked first, handled an average of 397 felony cases last year, compared with the national average of 84.
Federal judges in those five districtsSouthern and Western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern Californiahandled one-third of all the felonies prosecuted in the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts in 2005, according to federal court statistics.
Judges say they are stretched to the limit with cases involving drug trafficking or illegal immigrants who have also committed serious crimes. Judges say they need help.
“The need is really dire. You cannot keep increasing the number of Border Patrol agents but not increasing the number of judges,” said Chief Judge John M. Roll of the District of Arizona.
The entire federal court system is affected, from U.S. marshals to magistrate judges. The bottleneck has even derailed enforcement efforts.
During a push to crack down on illegal immigration last fall, Customs and Border Protection floated a plan for New Mexico that would have suspended the practice of sending home hundreds of illegal immigrants caught near the border with Mexico. Instead, these people would be sent to court.
The idea, called “Operation Streamline,” was to make it clear that people caught illegally in the U.S. would be prosecuted.
Then New Mexico’s federal judges reminded the Border Patrol that they lacked the resources to handle the hundreds of new defendants who would stream into the court system every day.
“We said, ‘Do you realize that the second week into this we’re going to run out of (jail) space?’” Martha Vazquez, chief judge for the District of New Mexico, recalled telling Border Patrol chief David Aguilar.
“We were obviously alarmed because where would we put our bank robbers? Our rapists? Those who violate probation?” she said.
The Border Patrol has almost 2,800 more agents than the 9,821 it had in September of 2001. An additional 6,000 National Guard troops have provided logistical support to the Border Patrol since last May.
Homeland Security officials say the increased security is working. In Yuma, Bush said that the number of people apprehended for illegally crossing the southern border into the U.S. has declined by nearly 30 percent this year.
Court officials, however, say they are in crisis mode trying to deal with all the defendants.
Even lawmakers from border states say they cannot justify adding judgeships in one district when other districts also need them.
Court officials say they have had to be creative just to try the cases they have. Visiting judges help out in some districts. In Arizona, magistrates hold sessions on the weekends and have seen as many as 150 defendants in a day.
Court administrators have trouble keeping employees, such as interpreters, because of the grind. Judges’ staffs struggle with burnout. Everyone fights to keep up morale as they hear countless sad stories from migrants who broke the law searching for a better life in the United States.