Pros­e­cu­tion of il­le­gal en­tries slows in Cal­i­for­nia

The News-Times - - FROM THE FRONT PAGE -

SAN DIEGO — On a re­cent week­day, seven men shuf­fled wearily into the San Diego fed­eral court­room that serves a sin­gu­lar pur­pose: to hear mis­de­meanor charges of il­le­gal en­try.

The day be­fore, it was nine. One year af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion launched its “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy, the spe­cial crim­i­nal court that once pro­cessed an av­er­age of 50 unau­tho­rized im­mi­grants per day has dra­mat­i­cally slowed pace.

Court cal­en­dars that some­times stretched into the evening can now take un­der a half-hour.

Some days, there aren't any de­fen­dants to process at all.

The de­crease does not ap­pear to be tied to a change in phi­los­o­phy, or to the num­ber of adults trav­el­ing with­out chil­dren ap­pre­hended at the bor­der. In fact, such ap­pre­hen­sions along the Cal­i­for­nia-Mex­ico bor­der have risen over the past few months, yet only a frac­tion were pros­e­cuted with mis­de­meanor il­le­gal en­try in March.

In­stead, the vast ma­jor­ity were routed directly into the civil im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem to nav­i­gate sep­a­rate le­gal pro­cesses in­clud­ing de­por­ta­tion and asy­lum claims.

Bor­der Pa­trol of­fi­cials say they are be­ing pulled away from other du­ties — in­clud­ing for­ward­ing cases for crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion — be­cause they are “over­whelmed” by the surge of asy­lum-seek­ing fam­i­lies and un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren cross­ing il­le­gally.

“Due to this hu­man­i­tar­ian and bor­der se­cu­rity cri­sis, San Diego Sec­tor's re­sources are de­voted to the care and pro­cess­ing of these in­di­vid­u­als, im­pact­ing our abil­ity to carry out our law en­force­ment mis­sion,” said Bor­der Pa­trol spokesman Agent Justin Cas­tre­jon.

Rather than take the ex­tra time needed to doc­u­ment an ap­pre­hen­sion for pros­e­cu­tion and get them to court, he said agents are in­stead be­ing pulled more into sup­port­ive roles, in­clud­ing med­i­cal care, transporta­tion, food dis­tri­bu­tion and medication man­age­ment.

Nonethe­less, Cas­tre­jon said the il­le­gal en­try prose­cu­tions re­main “a top pri­or­ity for the sec­tor.”

At­tor­neys who rep­re­sent the mi­grants have been told to ex­pect the num­bers to stay low through May.

The U.S. at­tor­ney's of­fice in San Diego de­clined to com­ment.

The gov­ern­ment doesn't ap­pear to be fol­low­ing any par­tic­u­lar pat­tern when it comes to de­cid­ing which mi­grants to pros­e­cute.

On any given day, there are peo­ple with crim­i­nal rap sheets and prior de­por­ta­tions, and peo­ple with no past ar­rests or im­mi­gra­tion his­tory. There are Cen­tral Amer­i­cans, Cubans, Mex­i­cans, In­di­ans. Some plan­ning to seek asy­lum, oth­ers here to work or join fam­ily.

“It's a real hodge­podge,” said Kara Lee Hart­zler, a fed­eral de­fender in San Diego.

Those who are pros­e­cuted are in a worse po­si­tion than if they'd just been handed to the civil im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. A crim­i­nal con­vic­tion, even a mis­de­meanor, hurts their chances of le­gal en­try in the fu­ture.

And that's the point. When then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions first an­nounced a zero tol­er­ance pol­icy last April, he in­tended the pol­icy to be truly zero tol­er­ance - ev­ery sin­gle per­son who crossed the South­ern bor­der il­le­gally would be pros­e­cuted with a crime.

It was a de­par­ture from how other ad­min­is­tra­tions had dealt with il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, pros­e­cut­ing only repeat of­fend­ers or bor­der crossers with se­ri­ous crim­i­nal records. Most oth­ers would avoid a crim­i­nal charge and be pro­cessed in the civil im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

A crim­i­nal con­vic­tion would act as a de­ter­rence to fu­ture il­le­gal en­try, Ses­sions ar­gued.

But ex­pec­ta­tion never be­came re­al­ity. When the pol­icy was rolled out in earnest in May, the ramped-up prose­cu­tions im­me­di­ately stretched gov­ern­ment re­sources.

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