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U.S. border judges swamped with drug, immigrant cases

Sergio Bustos
Gannett News Service

Apr. 30, 2001

WASHINGTON - Six years ago, Arizona's eight federal court judges each handled an average of 110 criminal cases a year.

And though the federal government has since authorized four new judges, the average number of criminal cases per judge has continued to climb.

In fact, Arizona's federal judges last year handled an average of 259 criminal cases, more than three times the national average. Defendants crowding the court docket often are charged with illegally crossing the border or smuggling illegal drugs into the United States.

"It's quite severe and it means Arizona federal judges are doing the work of two judges," said Stephen McNamee, chief judge of Arizona's federal courts, which include Phoenix and Tucson.

The strain on federal judges is not confined to Arizona; it also affects the border states of California, New Mexico and Texas. The massive increase in cases is rooted in a six-year federal government crackdown on illegal immigrants and illegal drugs.

Last month, W. Royal Furgeson, a federal judge from Texas, pleaded with Congress to add 18 judges to the five federal courts responsible for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Two of the courts are in Texas.

"The border courts are beyond their capacity to handle their caseloads," he warned. "We have reached our limits."

And because of the overload, Capitol Hill lawmakers are questioning whether criminals are going unpunished.

"I am concerned that prosecutors may give less attention to cases of lower level drug smugglers who would certainly be prosecuted in any other judicial district outside the Southwest border," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary's subcommittee on crime. "This undermines the deterrent factor and encourages repeat offenders."

Less attention is being given to the two leading crimes on the border, according to federal judges and others.


· Less than 1 percent of the 1.6 million illegal immigrants apprehended last year were prosecuted, border court judges said, adding that in some areas illegal immigrants are not prosecuted unless caught 10 times.

· The rise in number of federal drug cases in the border courts, which has doubled to 6,116 cases since 1994, has forced federal courts to turn to state courts for help. Federal judges said some state courts have quit accepting cases because they cannot afford the cost of prosecuting them.

"Justice in these locations has been compromised because the judges have not been there to meet the workload demands," said U.S. District Judge John Heyburn II, chairman of the Judicial Conference's budget committee. The conference is composed of the nation's 655 federal judges.

Heyburn and other judges attribute the Southwest Border Initiative to the skyrocketing number of federal criminal cases. Launched in 1995 under then-President Clinton, the initiative allowed the federal government to hire scores of Border Patrol, immigration, customs and Drug Enforcement Administration agents. But few dollars went to hire more prosecutors or judges.

Funding for federal courts, for instance, increased 4 percent from 1994 to 1998, while the Border Patrol's budget doubled. The DEA's budget rose 155 percent. The result: Arrests climbed, while prosecutions lagged.

That has left border courts overburdened. The latest caseload numbers show that more than one in four federal cases filed nationwide lands in one of the five border courts. The 58 judges assigned to the region cope with an average of 332 cases a year compared with the national average of 78 cases.

And the increasing number of criminal cases isn't expected to ease, according to federal law enforcement officials, who said illegal immigrants and illicit drugs continue to flow across the border in record numbers.

"The border continues to be the preferred corridor to smuggle cocaine, black tar heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States," said DEA head Donnie Marshall, who estimates that 65 percent of all the cocaine destined for the United States crosses the border region.

President Bush's proposed budget offers no money to add federal judges. Instead, he is asking Congress to spend $75 million to hire 570 additional Border Patrol agents in each of the next two years. If approved, the border will have 11,000 agents by 2003, a 175 percent increase since 1993.

However, two versions of a bill have been introduced in the House and Senate that would add 18 judges to the border.

House bill sponsors include Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. Sponsors of the Senate version include Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Texas Republicans Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Furgeson, the federal judge from Texas, said increasing the number of law enforcement officials on the border will do little to reduce drug trafficking and undocumented immigrants.

"Washington cannot increase the crackdown on illegal drugs and immigration on the Southwest border without more judges to allow these cases to be prosecuted," he said.

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