New Mexico is one of five U.S. District Courts—the others are Arizona, Southern California, Western Texas, and Southern Texas—on the front line of the illegal immigration debate.
An investigation into those courts reveals a system stretched to the breaking point. Cybercast News Service looked at each of the more than 90 U.S. District and Territorial Courts’ criminal case filings since 2002. The five border districts saw an average of 3,730 criminal cases a year, compared to just 425 criminal cases in the other federal courts (see spreadsheet).
The difference, say law enforcement and prosecutors on the border, is illegal immigration.
More than half the criminal cases in each of the five border districts deal with federal immigration charges (an average of 2,264 cases a year). In New Mexico, 71 percent of all criminal cases in 2006 were immigration-related, while 70 percent of all cases in Southern Texas that year were linked to immigration.
In non-border districts, by contrast, the average is 54 immigration cases a year, or slightly over ten percent.
The problem has exploded in recent years, causing massive backlogs and slowing other court business to a crawl.
Border district officials trace the spike in cases to stepped-up enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. While Congress and the Bush administration have added funding for thousands of new Border Patrol agents since 2001, there hasn’t been a similar funding increase for those who process the suspects.
Yet, as one U.S. Marshal in Arizona put it, funding for public defenders and court services officers isn’t “sexy,” or easy to sell to other lawmakers. Without those critical pieces of the legal system, law enforcement officials say the efficiency of the entire process is devastated.
In the meantime, Court Clerk Dykman says his staff will just keep soldiering on, despite conditions which sometimes make him shake his head.
“In our district we have to have group guilty pleas,” he said. “It’s more like a traffic court environment than a federal court environment.”
In fact, those five border districts now make up more than 30 percent of all federal criminal cases every year.