Prosecution of illegal entries slows in California
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.