Civil lib­er­tar­i­ans: Ex­pe­dited process harms il­le­gals’ rights

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY ALI­CIA A. CALD­WELL

DEL RIO, TEXAS | One by one, the Mexican men stood in the jury box, shack­les rat­tling as they fid­geted slightly and pleaded guilty to cross­ing the U.S. bor­der il­le­gally.

They had come for bet­ter jobs, many to earn more money to help raise their chil­dren, their de­fense lawyer told a fed­eral mag­is­trate in a quiet West Texas court­room about three miles north of the Mexican bor­der. The mag­is­trate, Col­lis White, warned that a guilty plea would mean jail time and they couldn’t re­turn to the United States legally for years.

Speak­ing in Span­ish, each of the 15 men said they un­der­stood and took their chances. They faced up to six months in jail, but most were sen­tenced to just a few days.

The men had the mis­for­tune of land­ing in Amer­ica’s tough­est court­house when it comes to deal­ing with people who cross the bor­der il­le­gally. In other ju­ris­dic­tions, author­i­ties rou­tinely skip the crim­i­nal charges and sim­ply or­der quick de­por­ta­tions.

But for the last decade, just about every­one ar­rested near Del Rio gets pros­e­cuted.

That tough ap­proach is a model Pres­i­dent Trump hopes to repli­cate as part of his sweep­ing plans to stop il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, the cor­ner­stone of his cam­paign. He wants to pros­e­cute many more people caught cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally.

Do­ing so wouldn’t be cheap. Im­mi­gra­tion cases al­ready ac­count for more than half of fed­eral pros­e­cu­tions. Mr. Trump is seek­ing hun­dreds of mil­lion of dol­lars more for jail cells, pros­e­cu­tors and marshals to trans­port pris­on­ers. It’s un­clear if Congress will give him the money.

Civil lib­er­tar­i­ans ob­ject to the pros­e­cu­tions, saying those ar­rested are rushed through the le­gal sys­tem with­out hav­ing a chance to ex­er­cise their rights.

And a pre­vi­ous at­tempt to ex­pand the Del Rio ap­proach had mixed re­sults. Pros­e­cu­tions spiked at the end of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and dur­ing the first few years of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but later de­clined.

Part of the de­cline is likely be­cause of the drop in ar­rests at the bor­der. But lim­ited re­sources, in­clud­ing jail space to house people and pros­e­cu­tors to try cases, were also is­sues.

Still, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have made clear they plan to press ahead. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions and Home­land Se­cu­rity Secretary John F. Kelly made the point as they have been tour­ing the bor­der in re­cent weeks, saying that those who en­ter the United States il­le­gally will be ar­rested, pros­e­cuted and de­ported.

Ear­lier this month, the Justice Depart­ment re­leased a memo call­ing on pros­e­cu­tors to ap­point bor­der se­cu­rity co­or­di­na­tors in ev­ery ju­di­cial district.

“This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Mr. Ses­sions said this month dur­ing a visit to the bor­der in No­gales, Ari­zona.

In Mag­is­trate White’s Del Rio court­room, each case of some­one charged with cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally was han­dled in un­der a minute. Only one was sen­tenced to more than a few days: A man who had been de­ported in 2013 was sen­tenced to 120 days in prison.

Each man was warned not to come back to the United States with­out the govern­ment’s per­mis­sion.

“If you can find a le­gal way to come back, you’re more than wel­come,” Mag­is­trate White told the shack­led men, his words re­peated in Span­ish by an in­ter­preter. “But it has to be just that.”

The new push for im­mi­gra­tion pros­e­cu­tions comes as the num­ber of people cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally has plum­meted. Un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, there was a steady de­cline in ar­rests, a likely in­di­ca­tion fewer people were try­ing to sneak into the United States. And in March, the sec­ond full month of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, bor­der agents re­ported the fewest bor­der crossers in a sin­gle month in at least 17 years.

Il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion strad­dles a line in fed­eral court­houses. Be­ing in the United States il­le­gally — whether af­ter cross­ing a bor­der or over­stay­ing a visa — is a civil of­fense, not a crime. But those caught cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally, or vi­o­lat­ing a pre­vi­ous ban from re­turn­ing to the U.S., can face crim­i­nal charges, though that gen­er­ally doesn’t hap­pen.

The Del Rio pros­e­cu­tion strat­egy fol­lowed an ear­lier push to se­cure the bor­der and curb the flow of il­le­gal bor­der crossers. Be­fore the ef­fort launched, agents in the Bor­der Pa­trol’s Del Rio Sec­tor ar­rested more than 68,000 people in a 12-month pe­riod.

Ar­rests dropped by more than 25,000 af­ter the first year. Over the last decade, ar­rests in the area have av­er­aged about 20,000 a year.


De­spite a drop in the num­ber of il­le­gals cross­ing the south­west bor­der, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions (left) and Home­land Secretary John F. Kelly main­tain that those who il­le­gally en­ter the United States will be ar­rested, pros­e­cuted and de­ported.

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