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Border crackdown jams US federal courts

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"It takes a lot of choreography to keep those defendants away from each other, and in this case each agency involved thought the other had taken care of it," a weary Judge Vázquez said during a phone interview late Friday, having directed that the prisoner in question be moved to a safe location. "But this is what happens when our caseloads become huge. There's not enough marshals, enough US attorneys, judges, court officers, courtrooms – not enough of anything."

The US began laying the groundwork for the current prosecutorial overload as far back as 1996, with enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, says Mr. Vail. That law provided funds for the border patrol to more than double the number of agents along the Southwest border. It also introduced what's known as "reinstatement of removal," which means that any illegal immigrant who'd been deported by a US immigration judge – a misdemeanor – would be automatically subjected to reinstatement of that previous order if caught again trying to sneak into the United States. No new hearing before an immigration judge would be needed.

Moreover, under that law the illegal entrant can be charged with illegal entry after deportation, a felony – an option now being applied more often by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

Fingerprinting leads to more cases

An advance in technology also helps CBP and ICE generate more felony arrests. By the end of 2004, all border patrol sectors had been hooked up with the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. All people detained at the border are fingerprinted, and that digital print is immediately transmitted to the FBI in Washington. Within minutes, a report comes back indicating whether the detainee has been caught and deported before, and whether that detainee has a criminal history.

"It is one of the most useful tools we have," says Gus Soto, supervisory border patrol agent in Tucson. "We're finding that for every 10 people we're apprehending, at least one has a criminal record in the US, and these are people we are, of course, prosecuting."

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