Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the borderlands a “beachhead against the cartels” and suggested that he may seek more resources for federal courts in border jurisdictions like New Mexico that have been swamped by immigration prosecutions.
“As I learned firsthand last week in Nogales, it is here, on this sliver of land where we establish a beachhead against the cartels, the transnational street gangs like MS-13, and the human traffickers,” Sessions said Thursday at a news conference with local and national press at a federal building less than a mile from the Mexican border.
“This is ground zero. This is the front lines, and this is where we’re making our stand – your stand, on behalf of the people of this country.”
Sessions spoke alongside Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who said he and the attorney general “are serious about border security and enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.” Their visit was part of a border tour that included a stop in Arizona earlier this month and a scheduled stop in San Diego today.
But Sessions’ narrative angered some border residents who noted the relative safety of Doña Ana and El Paso counties along the border – where the residents are majority Hispanic and the U.S. Census Bureau reports that foreign-born residents account for 17 percent and 26 percent of the population, respectively.
“The strong implication in this press conference was that the border region, including southern New Mexico, is an unsafe place,” said Jon Barela, executive director of the regional Borderplex Alliance and a former economic development secretary in New Mexico under Gov. Susana Martinez. “That is a false narrative.”
Dozens of protesters awaited Session’s and Kelly’s arrival, chanting “Fuera, Sessions” – telling the attorney general to “get out” of El Paso. They held banners and placards with slogans like “hugs not walls” and the biblical verse “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Sessions oversees the U.S. Department of Justice, including federal prosecutors in every state and the nation’s federal court systems, including criminal courts and immigration courts.
The federal court in Las Cruces has for years been swamped by criminal immigration cases – so much so that New Mexico’s U.S. Attorney’s Office put a cap on immigration prosecutions last June because resources were stretched so thin.
Apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants by Border Patrol in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, rising from 9,678 to 25,634, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
Felony prosecutions of illegal re-entry cases, charged when a migrant crosses the border illegally more than once, surged in New Mexico, straining resources in the U.S. attorney offices in Albuquerque and Las Cruces and filling the federal court docket in Las Cruces.
New Mexico ranked third in the nation for criminal immigration prosecutions in February, the latest month for which data are available through Syracuse University’s TRAC data service. New Mexico ranked ahead of Arizona and California and behind the two districts in Texas.
“It’s not unusual – in fact, it’s true – that most border districts have high caseloads per judge,” Sessions said. “But we could be at a breaking point. If we need more federal judges, we’ll seek them. I’ve told the federal prosecutors, if we need more people to prepare those cases and present them in an effective way before the court, we will do that.”
Federal judges working on the border typically rank high nationally in terms of caseload, thanks to the large number of felony prosecutions of immigrants. But southern New Mexico federal Judges Robert Brack and Kenneth Gonzales, who handle criminal cases, consistently rank at the top among their peers in border courts.
In comments made earlier this month in Arizona, Sessions committed to increasing the number of judges in the federal immigration court system, which handles cases dealing with asylum and other petitions for immigration relief, but made no mention of the federal criminal courts, which handle felony re-entries and violations of the law.
Accompanied by the local chiefs of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, CBP and other agencies, Sessions and Kelly were expected to tour border infrastructure in El Paso. They were not scheduled to tour southern New Mexico, where the most recent stretch of 18-foot steel fencing has been erected on the border – part of the more than 500 miles of border “wall” that already exists.