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Federal courts see border security landslide

President Obama's $600 million border plan has 1,000 agents, seven gunrunner teams, five FBI task forces and more prosecutors and immigration judges, but nothing for federal courts.
Santos Flores
U.S. Border Patrol agent Santos Flores walks in front of the old border fence, back left, where it meets a five-mile section of new border fence in 2008 at Nogales, Ariz. President Barack Obama's plan to hire 1,000 more Border Patrol agents and other immigration officers could flood the region's already overwhelmed federal courts, a judiciary official said.Ross D. Franklin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama's $600 million border security plan seems to have it all: More than 1,000 agents, seven gunrunner teams, five FBI task forces and more prosecutors and immigration judges.

But it doesn't include $40 million to help the already overwhelmed federal courts along the U.S.-Mexico border that will likely be inundated with additional drug and other criminal cases, a judiciary official tells The Associated Press.

Increased patrols will mean more arrests and more cases sent to the five district courts on the border, from California to Texas. The courts handle cases including drug trafficking, smuggling and illegal immigrants charged with other serious crimes.

"The current workload in our Southwest border courts is staggering," said James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

Judiciary on its own
Duff said the judiciary asked Congress for the $40 million on June 22 after realizing it wasn't sent with Obama's plan. He said judiciary requests are usually included with the president's budget proposals, but wasn't in this case.

White House spokesman Luis Miranda said the request wasn't submitted with the president's because it's a separate branch of government.

Obama's plan does include more money for immigration judges, which operate in the executive branch. But those judges deal almost exclusively with civil deportation matters, not criminal cases, like the district courts.

The chief judge for the District of Arizona in Tucson, located in what's become the busiest corridor for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, said he fears that increased patrols will bring even more cases to his already swamped court.

"If you have more agents in the field, they're going to make more apprehensions. ... Being here on the ground in the middle of everything happening, we would have to have more resources if they're going to bring us more cases," Judge John Roll told The AP.

Last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, nearly 2,700 of the district's more than 5,200 criminal cases involved immigration, Roll wrote in a letter this month to a handful of lawmakers on appropriations committees. He said judges work long hours and take cases home on weekends and while they travel.

Judges in the five border courts handle hundreds more cases than most of their counterparts in the rest of the country.

The system became so overrun with pot busts, for example, that until recently federal prosecutors in Arizona generally declined to press charges against marijuana smugglers caught with less than 500 pounds.

Stepped up enforcement boosts cases
The increase in immigration cases since 2005 can be attributed to increased law enforcement and a Border Patrol initiative to arrest and prosecute illegal immigrants in federal courts on charges of illegal entry, rather than send them to an immigration judge for civil deportation proceedings.

In Arizona, nearly 23,000 people were charged with immigration offenses in fiscal year 2009, almost triple the 7,700 people charged with such offenses in fiscal year 2005, according to Duff's office.

Immigration offenses more than doubled in that time in New Mexico and the southern district of California, and nearly doubled in the western district of Texas. Such cases grew by 70 percent in the southern district of Texas, which saw the most total cases at 26,700.

Combined, the border districts handled nearly 75 percent of criminal immigration cases in the nation's 94 districts in fiscal year 2009 and almost 40 percent of all the nation's federal criminal case filings, Duff said.

Money vs. justice
Duff said his office was not trying to get the $40 million to "feather our own nests. We're doing this basically out of desperation for our courts."

"It's going to overwhelm the system," Duff said. "It undermines the effectiveness of law enforcement if the system can't handle all the cases. The system can't work without additional resources being given to the judicial branch, as well."

He said the $40 million would go toward a new judge in each border district, attorneys for indigent defendants, court security officers and other staff.

David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration lawyer and the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he's worried that justice will be compromised in federal courts unable to keep up with the caseload.

"If you get a lot more defendants than you have lawyers to represent them, you get into situations where people feel pressured to plead out their cases without adequate investigation," he said. "You're overloading the system and it has to break somewhere."