Border Prosecutions Strain Courts

Border Prosecutions Strain Courts
Posted by FoM on August 30, 1999 at 12:48:35 PT
Critics say crackdown is a numbers game
Source: Arizona Central
HOUSTON - A federal crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling in Arizona and other states along the U.S.-Mexico border has produced record numbers of prosecutions, straining courts and drawing criticism that it is a diversion from more serious social problems. 
The Southwest Border Initiatives, a national strategy aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and drug crime in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California, began five years ago. Operating under a congressional mandate and increased funding, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has stationed 1,000 additional agents along the border each year for the past three years and will continue doing so until 2001. INS criminal filings doubled between 1993 and 1997, and federal courts in Texas posted a 69 percent increase in drug case filings and a 58 percent hike in immigration case filings last year, the Houston Chronicle reported in Sunday editions. The surge in cases has been especially burdensome for federal courts in the Western District of Texas, which includes San Antonio and El Paso, and in the Southern District, which stretches from Houston to Brownsville to Laredo. Western District Clerk Bill Putnicki said the increases have strained resources and personnel in the sparsely populated border areas. But years of squirreling away extra funds paid off last year when Putnicki added eight court positions -- in the midst of a hiring freeze -- to handle the nearly 300 percent increase in criminal filings in El Paso and Del Rio. In San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery daily faces a load of 841 pending cases - about twice the national average for federal judges. Biery now uses videoconferencing and en masse sentencing to speed up the process. "This is the way we handle an increased volume of cases," he said. While overall filings mount, violent and white-collar crime cases have declined from 37 percent of the total criminal filings by federal prosecutors in Texas to 24 percent last year, the Chronicle reported. That has spurred criticism that the border crackdown is a politically motivated "numbers game." Ron Woods, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said the federal government once concentrated its resources on bringing down drug trafficking organizations. Now it goes after small-time cases involving a half-pound of marijuana, he said. John Scalia, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the priorities of federal law enforcement are often set by the politics of the time. Ire over the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War fueled the prosecution of large numbers of draft evaders during the 1970s, he said. But Dan Kesselbrenner, an attorney with the liberal National Immigration Project of the Lawyers Guild in Boston, said, "It really is a misallocation of federal resources to devote this much time, money and resources to crimes where there is no victim, no violence." Associated Press Aug. 30, 1999 Copyright 1999, Arizona Central
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