Traf­fick­ing pros­e­cu­tions plum­met amid fo­cus on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Brad Heath JOHN MOORE/GETTY IM­AGES

WASH­ING­TON Fed­eral drug-traf­fick­ing pros­e­cu­tions along the southwestern bor­der plunged to their low­est level in nearly two decades this sum­mer as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion launched a “zero tol­er­ance” crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion that sep­a­rated thou­sands of chil­dren from their par­ents. ❚ The de­ci­sion to pros­e­cute ev­ery­one caught en­ter­ing the USA il­le­gally flooded fed­eral courts with thou­sands of cases, most of them in­volv­ing mi­nor im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions that re­sulted in no jail time and a $10 fee. As pros­e­cu­tors and bor­der agents brought those im­mi­grants to court, the num­ber of peo­ple they charged un­der drug-traf­fick­ing laws dropped by 30 per­cent along the bor­der – and in some places far more steeply than A U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol agent walks along the U.S.-Mexican bor­der at the Im­pe­rial Sand Dunes on Nov. 17, 2016, near Felic­ity, Calif.

that, a USA TO­DAY re­view of court dock­ets and Jus­tice De­part­ment records found. In June and July, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors charged fewer peo­ple with drug­traf­fick­ing vi­o­la­tions than in any month since at least 2001, when the United States be­gan a bor­der se­cu­rity buildup. The num­bers re­bounded in Au­gust but re­mained lower than the pre­vi­ous sum­mer. The ad­min­is­tra­tion cited keep­ing drug smug­glers and other crim­i­nals out of the USA as a cen­tral rea­son for tighter re­stric­tions along the Mexican bor­der. It’s part of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a bor­der wall and dates to the first mo­ments of his cam­paign. In May, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions in­structed pros­e­cu­tors in the five fed­eral ju­di­cial dis­tricts span­ning parts of four states along the Mexican bor­der to seek crim­i­nal charges against ev­ery­one caught at­tempt­ing to en­ter the USA il­le­gally, even if it meant set­ting aside other pri­or­i­ties. A spokes­woman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in New Mex­ico, El­iz­a­beth Martinez, said the drop in drug cases there “is com­pletely un­re­lated to the of­fice’s im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment ef­forts.” Oth­ers were just as cer­tain the shift in fo­cus played a role. “There’s no doubt in my mind that se­ri­ous fed­eral felony of­fenses are be­ing de­clined be­cause of the ad­di­tional re­sources be­ing spent on peo­ple cross­ing the south­west bor­der,” said John Sandweg, a for­mer act­ing chief of U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment. “You’d think the em­pha­sis would be on drug traf­fick­ers.” Days af­ter the zero-tol­er­ance crack­down be­gan, a Jus­tice De­part­ment su­per­vi­sor in San Diego warned of the likely con­se­quences. In an email to bor­der au­thor­i­ties, Fred Shep­pard, who ran the ma­jor crimes unit of the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice there, said pros­e­cu­tors would be “di­vert­ing staff, both sup­port and at­tor­neys.” He said pros­e­cu­tors would put tighter dead­lines on smug­gling in­ves­ti­ga­tions bound for fed­eral court, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for agents to bring cases. Soon, al­ready busy courts along the bor­der found them­selves in­un­dated with often largely sym­bolic cases – most of them mis­de­meanor charges against peo­ple caught cross­ing into the USA for the first time. Bor­der agents brought mi­grants into fed­eral court­rooms to plead guilty by the dozens, then re­turned many of them to im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­ters, where they found their chil­dren were gone. An ex­am­i­na­tion by USA TO­DAY in June found that a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple charged with mis­de­meanor im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions pleaded guilty the same day and were sen­tenced to no jail time or fine. Case man­age­ment records show at­tor­neys who pre­vi­ously han­dled some drug-traf­fick­ing cases were as­signed to pros­e­cute the hun­dreds of those bor­der-cross­ing mis­de­meanors. Jus­tice De­part­ment lawyers filed so many im­mi­gra­tion charges that the to­tal num­ber of crim­i­nal cases in the fed­eral courts in Laredo and McAllen, Texas, more than dou­bled from March to Au­gust, court records show. The caseloads in Cor­pus Christi and Brownsville, Texas, and El Centro, Cal­i­for­nia, more than tripled. The glut of new cases ig­nited an in­ter­na­tional back­lash be­cause they were the le­gal mech­a­nism for sep­a­rat­ing more than 2,600 chil­dren from their par­ents. At the end of Septem­ber, govern­ment lawyers said 136 chil­dren re­mained in cus­tody with­out their par­ents. Few of the cases in­volved drugs. Court dock­ets show that only 262 of the more than 14,000 crim­i­nal cases filed along the bor­der in July in­volved peo­ple in­dicted on drug-traf­fick­ing charges. In McAllen, the Jus­tice De­part­ment brought half as many felony drug-traf­fick­ing cases in July as it did ear­lier in the year, court dock­ets show. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in­dicted 54 peo­ple in felony drug-traf­fick­ing cases that month, down from 152 in March. Martinez said the de­cline in drug pros­e­cu­tions in New Mex­ico is the re­sult of less smug­gling, not less at­ten­tion from pros­e­cu­tors and agents. Nonethe­less, the drug trade along the bor­der re­mains vast. U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion es­ti­mated in March that agents seize al­most 3 tons of nar­cotics on a typ­i­cal day.

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