Courts Overwhelmed as Immigration Prosecutions Set to Triple

Wednesday, 24 Apr 2013 10:25 AM

By Melanie Batley

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Criminal prosecutions of immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally are set to triple under proposals introduced in the Senate’s immigration bill, but many border courts are already overwhelmed by the backlog of criminal cases.

The bill intends to bolster an existing $1 billion criminal enforcement program called Operation Streamline, by allocating an additional $250 million over five years to Arizona’s justice system for prosecuting offenders. It would also increase the number of people who can be prosecuted from 70 per day to 210, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

“Operation Streamline is the most effective deterrent program DHS runs, so it’s an important element of the border security provisions in the bill,” said Brian Rogers, spokesman for Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and member of the Gang of Eight who drafted the bill.

But critics of the plan say many border courts in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona are overwhelmed by Streamline’s existing quotas for criminal prosecutions, resulting in an already heavy backlog of cases. Funds should instead go to fighting hardened criminals, they argue.

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“Not since Prohibition has a single crime category been prosecuted in such numbers by the federal government,” said Ingrid Eagly, a law-school professor at UCLA.

Indeed, immigration has now surpassed all other areas of federal prosecution amounting to about 36 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions in 2011, and exceeding drug and fraud prosecutions combined, according to the Journal. The vast majority of immigration-related cases, or 84 percent, were for illegal reentry that year.

“It’s misdirected to throw money at simple immigrants” seeking work, said Regina Jefferies, chair of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They should be focusing on drug smugglers and other serious criminals,” she added.

Under the Streamline program, first time offenders face criminal misdemeanor charges and up to 180 days in prison, while repeat offenders are looking at felony charges and longer sentences.

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