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Border crackdown jams US federal courts

Fingerprinting of immigration detainees and prosecution of repeat border-crossers are driving the heavier caseloads.

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The US government's crackdown on illegal immigration is resulting in so many more felony charges against foreigners that the federal courts serving the Southwest border are overwhelmed and reaching for the panic button.

The rising caseloads in five US district courts are a direct result of the beefed-up border patrol. Though tighter border security is deterring illegal entry, resulting in fewer arrests, border agents now have the manpower and resources to be vigilant about checking those in custody for criminal connections and outstanding warrants. They are also increasingly filing more-serious felony charges against repeat border-crossers, sending those cases straight to US district courts in the border area.

"The government front-loaded this system," says former immigration judge Joe Vail, now director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Houston. "It has almost tripled the size of the border patrol since 1996, and last year brought in the National Guard, but has done nothing to increase the personnel they need to process and adjudicate these cases, including federal court judges, prosecutors, federal public defenders, plus the support personnel you need to do all this."

View from Judge Vázquez's bench

It's a situation with which Chief Judge Martha Vázquez is all too familiar. From her bench at federal court in Santa Fe, N.M., she presides over the busiest of America's 94 federal court districts. Just last week she was interrupted in her courtroom to deal with a life-threatening emergency involving a prisoner who had agreed to testify against a criminal organization – but had then been jailed with members of that same group.


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