Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico is getting six of the 35 federal prosecutors being sent to Southwestern border states to prosecute an increasing caseload as the districts implement a “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal immigration, the U.S. Department of Justice said earlier this month.
Federal prosecutors in New Mexico already have ramped up their prosecutions of illegal immigrants, John Anderson, U.S. attorney for New Mexico, said in a recent interview.
“It’s no secret that the (U.S.) attorney general has made immigration enforcement a priority across the Southwest border,” said Anderson, who took over the job two months ago. “That (zero-tolerance policy) is something that we have implemented in the district.”
As part of that change, his office has gotten rid of caps put in place by his predecessor limiting the number of prosecutions.
Anderson said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocated for a hard-line policy against illegal immigration during his trip to Albuquerque and Las Cruces last month.
“The American people made very clear their desire to secure our borders and prioritize the public safety and national security of our homeland,” Sessions said in a prepared statement when announcing the additional prosecutors. “Promoting and enforcing the rule of law is essential to our republic.
“By deploying these additional resources to the Southwest border, the Justice Department and the Trump Administration take yet another step in protecting our nation, its borders, and its citizens. It must be clear that there is no right to demand entry without justification.”
Sessions has asked U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the Southwest to prioritize the prosecutions of alien smuggling; of illegal re-entry, a felony for those in the U.S. illegally after already having been deported; and of improper entry, a misdemeanor for those illegally entering the U.S. for the first time.
To assist in the prosecutions, the DOJ is sending eight additional attorneys to both southern Texas and Southern California, seven to West Texas, and six each to New Mexico and Arizona.
Anderson said his office, which has about 75 attorneys on staff, already has received additional resources for immigration prosecutions. He said special assistant U.S. attorneys from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and someone from an organized crime unit within the DOJ have been sent to New Mexico to assist with cases.
1,000 a month
Anderson estimated that his office is prosecuting about 800 to 1,000 immigration cases per month where there isn’t an underlying more serious crime, like a violent crime or narcotics trafficking.
The majority of those cases are misdemeanor improper entries. But there are about 75 to 100 illegal re-entry cases his office receives from border patrol each week, he said.
Former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez at one point during his tenure capped the number of illegal re-entry cases – where there wasn’t any underlying violent or serious crime – at 150 cases per month.
“That cap is no longer in effect,” Anderson said. “Our policy is now a 100 percent prosecution policy.”
Anderson said both illegal re-entry and improper entry are often relatively quick prosecutions.
The misdemeanor improper entry cases are typically wrapped up within four to six days and the person is deported.
Most people who plead guilty to illegal re-entry serve about 30 to 45 days before being deported. Those sentences are enhanced if someone is a repeat offender or has racked up different criminal charges in the United States, he said.
Kristin Greer Love, a staff attorney for the ACLU in New Mexico, criticized the new policies.
“Prosecuting immigrants as criminals is heinous and a waste of resources,” she said. “It’s extremely troubling to see the Sessions Trump administration prioritizing immigration crime through prosecution.”
Greer Love said taking such an approach on immigration splits up families, takes resources from more serious matters and won’t serve as a deterrent against people trying to come to America to unify with families.
And many of the people prosecuted for improper entry have legitimate claims for asylum, she said.
“For the U.S. government to respond to a humanitarian situation with resources for deploying federal agents and prosecutors to criminalize these people is heinous,” she said.
Though federal prosecutors in New Mexico are making changes to their immigration policy, the state’s largest city is taking a different approach.
Mayor Tim Keller recently signed into law a bill making Albuquerque an immigrant-friendly city. The legislation prohibits city resources or personnel from assisting a federal agency in enforcing immigration laws.
The city’s efforts to become more immigrant-friendly come as the DOJ has threatened to withhold law enforcement grants from cities or jurisdictions that have such policies in place.
“It’s obviously something that’s on the radar screen,” Anderson said. “You’ve seen more direct action by DOJ against places like California, places that they see as being more extreme, but we do have those issues here. My personal take on it is … this is a real political flash point, and I think if we can enter a more productive dialogue, I think we will see there is room for cooperation.”
When asked for an example of possible cooperation, Anderson advocated for communication between local and federal law enforcement about undocumented people who are being held at local detention facilities.
In the past, local governments, including some in New Mexico, have had to pay judgments after lawsuits were brought by immigrants in jail at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when they otherwise would have been released.
“I understand the problems that arise when you are holding someone just for (an ICE hold),” Anderson said. “But, really, it’s just a phone call. ‘We’re going to release this person at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, do with that what you will.’ ”