WASHINGTON – Immigration-related felony cases are swamping federal courts along the Southwest border, forcing judges to handle hundreds more cases than their peers elsewhere.
Judges in the five, mostly rural judicial districts on the border carry the heaviest felony caseloads in the nation. Each judge in New Mexico, which ranked first, handled an average of 397 felony cases last year, compared with the national average of 84.
Federal judges in those five districts — Southern and Western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California — handled one-third of all the felonies prosecuted in the nation's 94 federal judicial districts in 2005, according to federal court statistics.
While Congress has increased the number of border patrol officers, the pace of the law enforcement has eclipsed the resources for the court system.
Judges say they are stretched to the limit with cases involving drug trafficking or illegal immigrants who have also committed serious crimes. Judges say they need help.
"The need is really dire. You cannot keep increasing the number of Border Patrol agents but not increasing the number of judges," said Chief Judge John M. Roll of the District of Arizona.
A bill by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, would add 10 permanent and temporary judges in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern and Western Texas. This proposal, and others like it, have gone nowhere in the past two years.
"I can't even tell you how much we need that," Roll said.
The entire federal court system is affected, from U.S. marshals to magistrate judges. The bottleneck has even derailed enforcement efforts.
During a push to crack down on illegal immigration last fall, Customs and Border Protection floated a plan for New Mexico that would have suspended the practice of sending home hundreds of illegal immigrants caught near the border with Mexico. Instead, these people would be sent to court.
The idea, called "Operation Streamline," was to make it clear that people caught illegally in the U.S. would be prosecuted.
Then New Mexico's federal judges reminded the Border Patrol that they lacked the resources to handle the hundreds of new defendants who would stream into the court system every day.
"We said, 'Do you realize that the second week into this we're going to run out of (jail) space?'" Martha Vazquez, chief judge for the District of New Mexico, recalled telling Border Patrol chief David Aguilar.
"We were obviously alarmed because where would we put our bank robbers? Our rapists? Those who violate probation?" she said.
Border Patrol eventually dropped the idea. Officials said they could not get all the necessary agencies to agree to it.
It is estimated more than 1 million people sneak across the southwestern U.S. border and illegally enter the country every year. In Arizona, the busiest entry point for illegal immigration, state officials believe almost 4,000 people attempted to enter every day in 2006.
Many lawmakers, advocates and President Bush favor overhauling guest worker programs and rules for businesses that hire illegal immigrants. The intent is to eliminate the incentive for workers to sneak into the country. Bush promoted his latest proposal for new worker visas this month in the border community of Yuma, Ariz.
In recent years, however, Congress has focused on increased enforcement.
The Border Patrol has almost 2,800 more agents than the 9,821 it had in September of 2001. An additional 6,000 National Guard troops have provided logistical support to the Border Patrol since last May.
Congress has made available more than $1.2 billion for reinforcements, including fences, vehicle barriers, cameras and other security equipment.
Homeland Security officials say the increased security is working. In Yuma, Bush said that the number of people apprehended for illegally crossing the southern border into the U.S. has declined by nearly 30 percent this year.
Court officials, however, say they are in crisis mode trying to deal with all the defendants.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a staunch opponent of illegal immigration, has urged U.S. attorneys and courts to prosecute more illegal immigrants and pushed for more resources for both. But he has discovered that while his colleagues who do not represent a border district are eager to add Border Patrol officers, many do not realize the effect that will have on the court system, his spokesman said.
Even lawmakers from border states say they cannot justify adding judgeships in one district when other districts also need them.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, says her state needs 12 judges, not just help on the border.
"I'd be happy to support any bill that gives California its fair share," Feinstein said in a statement. "And I will seek to amend any bill that does not."
Court officials say they have had to be creative just to try the cases they have. Visiting judges help out in some districts. In Arizona, magistrates hold sessions on the weekends and have seen as many as 150 defendants in a day.
In New Mexico, Vazquez, the chief judge, and former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias went on a Spanish-language radio station broadcast in Mexico this winter to warn people about the penalties for illegally entering the country.
Court administrators have trouble keeping employees, such as interpreters, because of the grind. Judges' staffs struggle with burnout. Everyone fights to keep up morale as they hear countless sad stories from migrants who broke the law searching for a better life in the United States.
"It'd be swell to have another judge or two," said Judge George Kazen, who is based on the border in Laredo, in the Southern District of Texas. "It would mean a little more time to spend on civil stuff, and a little more time to reflect. We have to make quick calls and move on."