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Push on Immigration Crimes Is Said to Shift Focus

January 12, 2009

Push on Immigration Crimes Is Said to Shift Focus

LAREDO, Tex. — Inside a courthouse just north of the Rio Grande, federal judges mete out prison sentences to throngs of 40 to 60 illegal immigrants at a time. The accused, mostly from Central America, Brazil and Mexico, wear rough travel clothes that speak of arduous journeys: flannel shirts, sweat suits, jeans and running shoes or work boots.

The prosecutors make quick work of the immigrants. Under a Justice Department program that relies on plea deals, most are charged with misdemeanors like improper entry.

Federal prosecutions of immigration crimes nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, reaching more than 70,000 immigration cases in the 2008 fiscal year, according to federal data compiled by a Syracuse University research group. The emphasis, many federal judges and prosecutors say, has siphoned resources from other crimes, eroded morale among federal lawyers and overloaded the federal court system. Many of those other crimes, including gun trafficking, organized crime and the increasingly violent drug trade, are now routinely referred to state and county officials, who say they often lack the finances or authority to prosecute them effectively.

Bush administration officials say the government’s focus on immigration crimes is an outgrowth of its counterterrorism strategy and vigorous pursuit of immigrants with criminal records.

Immigration prosecutions have steeply risen over the last five years, while white-collar prosecutions have fallen by 18 percent, weapons prosecutions have dropped by 19 percent, organized crime prosecutions are down by 20 percent and public corruption prosecutions have dropped by 14 percent, according to the Syracuse group’s statistics. Drug prosecutions — the enforcement priority of the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations — have declined by 20 percent since 2003.

“I have seen a national abdication by the Justice Department,” said Attorney General Terry Goddard of Arizona.

United States attorneys on the Southwest border, who handle the bulk of immigration prosecutions, usually decline to prosecute drug suspects with 500 pounds of marijuana or less — about $500,000 to $800,000 worth. As a result of Washington’s decision to forgo many of those cases, Mr. Goddard said, local agencies are handling many of them and becoming overwhelmed.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said that felony prosecutions of immigration crimes had increased 40 percent from 2000 through 2007 but that most other prosecutions had remained steady. But Justice Department statistics Mr. Carr provided to The New York Times did not include tens of thousands of misdemeanor charges and prosecutions conducted before magistrate judges. Data from the Syracuse group, known as the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, included those cases, which are driving the sharp growth in immigration cases.

Prosecutorial priorities are expected to change after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, said Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and policy institute that is closely associated with the transition team. “There will be a reassessment of whether aggressive targeting of criminal aliens through the use of federal criminal statues is an effective use of scarce law enforcement resources,” Mr. Agrast said.

The Bush administration bolstered its enforcement of immigration crimes by increasing the number of Border Patrol agents from 9,500 in 2004 to 15,000 in 2008 and adding several hundred federal prosecutors assigned to immigration crimes.

On heavy days, single courtrooms along the border process illegal immigrants on an industrial scale, sometimes more than 200 in a day. Misdemeanors usually carry a sentence of a few weeks to six months.

At the federal courthouse in Laredo, George P. Kazen, the senior judge, estimated that under Operation Streamline, the Justice Department program relying on plea deals for efficiency, he had sentenced more people to prison than any other active federal judge. But Judge Kazen said he was concerned about recent reports of the smuggling of firearms from Texas into Mexico by violent drug cartels.

“The U.S. attorney isn’t bringing me those cases,” he said. “They’re just catching foot soldiers coming across the border. They bust some stooge truck driver carrying a load of drugs, and you know there’s more behind it. But they will tell you that they don’t have the resources to drive it and develop a conspiracy case.”

“Every time the government puts a lot of resources on one thing, they’re going to take away from another,” he added.

Mr. Carr of the Justice Department disagreed, saying that other prosecutions had remained steady, and he defended the emphasis on immigration. “The Department has answered the call of Congress and the states along the Southwest border to pursue immigration enforcement aggressively.”

The debate over Justice Department priorities is loudest in this region, as local authorities facing dwindling resources are picking up cases federal prosecutors decline, especially the marijuana cases.

“We do reach a saturation point, so we set thresholds as to what type of cases we will work,” said Tim Johnson, acting United States attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “To the extent that we don’t have resources, we will refer them to local agencies.”

Drug traffickers now routinely break up their loads into smaller quantities to avoid stiffer federal penalties, law enforcement authorities say.

Thomas O’Sullivan, the chief criminal deputy county attorney in Santa Cruz County, Ariz., said that county prosecutors had begun to decline federal agents’ case referrals out of necessity.

In neighboring Pima County, which includes Tucson, Barbara LaWall, the county attorney, said she continued to take on federal cases but did not know how much longer she would be able to do so.

“We’re prosecuting Border Patrol cases, national park cases, customs cases, D.E.A. cases — any cases in which they have 499 pounds of marijuana or less, because I don’t want the drug dealers to have no consequences whatsoever,” Ms. LaWall said. “But the rock and the hard place is that my jurisdiction, as most others are, is experiencing some real financial downturns.”

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who is a frequent critic of Justice Department priorities, said that federal agents also complained often to her about delays in wiretap requests, a hallmark of the kind of complex investigations that used to be a mainstay of federal cases.

“They’ve pulled so many U.S. attorneys off drug crimes and organized crime caseloads that federal agents are trying to get help from local district attorneys because they can’t wait six weeks for a wiretap order,” Ms. Lofgren said. “By then it’s too late to catch the bad guys.”

Federal agents requested 457 wiretaps in 2007, a 14-year low. Meanwhile, state and local prosecutors requested 1,751 wiretaps, more than triple the number in 1993.

Some local prosecutors say they are glad to take on the kinds of challenging cases that federal prosecutors used to handle. Ms. LaWall boasted about a racketeering conspiracy she recently prosecuted involving millions of dollars in illegal methamphetamine sales in Arizona. But Damon Mosler, the San Diego district attorney’s narcotic division chief, said financial constraints often limited his office’s ability to do things, like assisting federal agents monitoring drug trafficking organizations.

“That sometimes means I can’t keep supporting those other jurisdictions,” Mr. Mosler said.

Mr. Goddard, the Arizona attorney general, said the impact of the Justice Department’s focus on immigration crime extended beyond the drug war.

“Where they used to be big players in environmental law, antitrust law, and consumer fraud — now the states are the ones taking on these kinds of cases,” Mr. Goddard said. “These used to be uniquely federal in nature because they are going after multistate institutions conducting cross-border schemes.”

Carol C. Lam, a former United States attorney for the Southern California District and now a deputy general counsel for Qualcomm, was ousted in 2007 after Justice Department officials said she did not prosecute enough illegal immigrants. Ms. Lam, who was involved in the corruption case of Randy Cunningham, a former California Republican congressman now serving federal prison time, said her philosophy led her to choose high-impact cases instead of cases that simply “drove the statistics.”

“If two-thirds of a U.S. attorney’s office is handling low-level narcotics and immigration crimes,” she said, “young prosecutors may not have the opportunity to learn how to do a wiretap case, or learn how to deal with the grand jury, or how to use money laundering statutes or flip witnesses or deal with informants and undercover investigations.”

“That’s not good law enforcement,” she said.

A senior federal prosecutor who has worked on a wide variety of cases along the border said that the focus on relatively simple immigration prosecutions was eroding morale at United States attorney offices.

“A lot of the guys I work with did nothing but the most complex cases — taking down multigenerational crime families, international crime, drug trafficking syndicates — you know, big fish,” said the prosecutor, who did not want to be identified as criticizing the department he works for. “Now these folks are dealing with these improper entry and illegal reentry cases.” He added, “It’s demoralizing for them, and us.”

Earlier versions of this article and an accompanying photo caption incorrectly paraphrased part of a comment by Barbara LaWall, the county attorney of Pima County, Ariz., concerning federal immigration cases. Ms. LaWall said she did not know how much longer her office could continue to take on the cases, not that she did know.