DRUG WAR HITS WALL
Trafficking prosecutions plummet amid focus on illegal immigration
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.