Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Illegal Immigrants Crush Courts in Overburdened Judicial System

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Seventh in a series. LAS CRUCES— A stream of men and women file into federal court, the clinking of their leg shackles punctuating the hum of activity from lawyers and interpreters.
    More than 20 detainees, every one of them Spanish speakers and most facing various illegal immigration charges, fill the seats in the jury box and spill into other courtroom seats under the watchful eye of guards.
    "You caught us on a slow day," one defense lawyer remarks.
    Illegal immigrants are not causing a major amount of the state's crime problems, according to law-enforcement officials and figures from jails and prisons.
    What illegal crossers are doing, however, is pushing the entire New Mexico federal court system near a breaking point.
    The sheer volume of immigration cases filed in federal courts is crushing. And thousands of federal prisoners are being housed in county lockups— on Uncle Sam's dime— while they await the outcome of their cases.
  • The number of felony cases filed in New Mexico's three federal courthouses has increased by nearly 300 percent over the past decade— and most of that explosion involves immigration offenses.
        The cases coming to the court range from misdemeanor "illegal entry" crimes involving crossers who have never before been in the federal court system to the felonies involving repeat crossers with extensive, and sometimes violent, rap sheets.
        More than 1,800 felony immigration cases were filed in New Mexico alone in fiscal 2005, which ended Sept. 30, according to the federal court clerk. That was a new record, topping fiscal 2004's immigration case numbers by more than 20 percent.
        "It's really at a crisis point," said Chief U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez, who heads the federal court system in New Mexico. "Nobody should be operating a federal court under these conditions."
        She admitted that, at times, "we get the names of the people mixed up."
  • The Las Cruces branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office about two years ago ceased prosecuting all misdemeanor immigration cases, leaving that task to the U.S. Border Patrol. But federal prosecutors in that city are still juggling caseloads more than seven times higher than the national average.
        "Is the system redline? We're past redline," said James T. Martin, who up until late this summer ran the Las Cruces branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
        Martin, who is now a state district judge, said that during a summer conference concerning the crisis in the border justice system, "Everyone compared us to the little boy with his fingers in the dike."
        He added: "We don't have enough fingers."
  • The U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for federal detainees until they are sentenced and received by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, handled a daily average of about 500 detainees in New Mexico in fiscal 1997. That daily average has since jumped to about 2,400 detainees.
        In just one day, the Marshals Service in New Mexico shells out more than $115,000 in federal money for jail bed space for its detainees. The detainees are housed in a list of New Mexico's county lockups under contract.
        "I'd say that if we're taking 30 prisoners into a courtroom for an initial appearance, 25 of them are for criminal immigration," said Gorden Eden, who heads up the Marshals Service in New Mexico.
        "If this was happening in another judicial district, I'm not sure it would be working," Eden added. But "nobody in this judicial district is willing to give up."
    Crime limited
        The Border Patrol in New Mexico made well over 70,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2005. But only a small fraction of those being caught at the border wind up facing federal charges: Border Patrol agents release many detainees without filing any charges, while others are administratively deported by the U.S. Executive Office of Immigration Review.
        However, 1,867 felony immigration cases were filed in New Mexico federal courts in fiscal 2005. And 2004 figures show the New Mexico federal court system was the busiest in the nation, based on felony cases handled per judgeship.
        "We don't practice law. We practice time management," Martin said. "For every 10 that we get rid of, 20 come in."
        Martin said nearly all of the illegal immigrants charged with felony immigration crimes have some sort of criminal past. That past can range from a drunken driving conviction in Washington state to a domestic assault in Chicago to a drug conviction in Albuquerque.
        But he and others said that doesn't mean illegal immigrants are causing a large portion of New Mexico's crime problems.
        As of mid-October, at least 179 illegal immigrants were locked in state prisons for various nonimmigration crimes, said New Mexico Corrections Department spokeswoman Tia Bland.
        Bland said most of the crimes are believed to be drug-related.
        The 179 prisoners all have so-called "immigration holds" placed on them by the federal government, meaning they will be transferred to federal custody after serving their state time.
        The number of illegal immigrants in the state system is "significant" because New Mexico's prisons are filling up, Bland said. And at an average inmate cost of about $30,000 per year, illegal immigrants are costing the state prison system at least $5.37 million annually.
        However, 179 inmates represents less than 2.8 percent of the state's total prison population of about 6,600 inmates.
        "Most of our burglaries are committed by people who live in the area. Traffic violations, the majority of them are done by people who live in the area," said Doña Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison, whose county borders Mexico. "Most of the time (illegal immigrants are) trying to get through as quietly as possible— because they know if they get caught, they're going back."
    Drug involvement
        County jails in New Mexico can receive federal money for illegal immigrants who stay in their lockups for three or more days.
        In fiscal 2004, the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County— the state's largest county lockup— asked for federal funds to help defray the jail costs of 1,178 illegal immigrants.
        That number represents a sliver of the jail's 40,000 or so total jail bookings over the course of a year. But it's nearly double the numbers in fiscal 2003, when the jail asked for federal money to cover 669 prisoners.
        The Lea County Detention Center in southeastern New Mexico sees only 20 or 25 illegal immigrants each year who spend several days or more behind bars, said warden Jann Gartman. That jail books in about 7,800 people each year.
        The notion that illegal immigrants are causing a crime wave and filling up the jails is false, said Gartman.
        Some drug runners use illegal immigrants as mules to carry in drugs, said Errol Chavez, director of the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which uses federal money to help organize drug-fighting task forces.
        The border remains a major smuggling route for illegal drugs, and many of the 856 people charged with federal, felony drug offenses in New Mexico in fiscal 2004 were involved in border-related narcotics cases. It wasn't immediately known how many of those suspects were illegal immigrants.
        But Chavez added, "The vast majority of illegal aliens coming into this country are not narcotics traffickers or couriers."
    Defenders deluged
        Like federal judges and prosecutors, federal public defenders are also deluged with illegal-immigration cases: Robert Kinney, who heads the Las Cruces branch of the Federal Public Defender's Office, estimated that at least 70 percent of the cases the dozen lawyers in his office are handling are immigration-related.
        Kinney's office earlier this year stopped defending most misdemeanor immigration cases. Those are now handled by private, contract attorneys.
        "We've been passing the misdemeanors off ... for about six months now," Kinney said in late August.
    'Sea of guys in orange'
        Eden, the head of the U.S. Marshals Service in New Mexico, said he recently came across a 2000 document from the service that estimated the New Mexico branch would be responsible for 2,100 detainees daily by 2010.
        "They were worried," he said with a laugh— as of Oct. 1, the daily count of detainees was hovering around 2,400.
        The Marshals Service has contracts with a long list of county detention centers— Sandoval County, Torrance County, Luna County and others— to house the federal detainees until after their trials. At an average daily cost of $48 to $56 a detainee, the yearly costs in this state alone are topping $42 million.
        Eden added the Federal Bureau of Prisons has recently run into a shortage of bed space in its southwestern U.S. prisons: As of Oct. 1, the Marshals Service had more than 300 detainees that were awaiting transfer to federal prisons.
        "We hold them. We're still paying the bill," Eden said.
        He said he was not allowed to provide budget figures for his office but added his budget dropped this year.
        Meanwhile, "our annual prisoner population growth has exceeded 20 percent," Eden said.
        The federal court system in 2004 tried to take some of the burden off the Las Cruces courthouse by transferring some immigration cases to the federal courts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
        The number of transferred cases is about 700 a year, and Vázquez said that figure is sure to rise.
        But even with the spreading of the cases, the Las Cruces courthouse is inundated.
        Many hearings take place en masse. The defendants clad in orange or green jail jumpsuits press earpieces to their ears to hear an interpreter translating questions and orders from judges, then answer in line as questions are asked of them.
        Vázquez said she descends from an immigrant family from the Mexican state of Jalisco. And a painting of her family's hometown hangs on the wall of her Santa Fe office.
        In Mexico, she said, songs are still sung about the heroic exploits of immigrants who headed north and sent their hard-earned wages back to Mexico to better their homes, pave their streets, improve their churches.
        When illegal immigrants come into her court, "I tell them 'Things are different now. It's not like it used to be,' " Vázquez said.
        She compared the atmosphere in the Las Cruces courthouse to traffic court.
        "It's just a sea of guys in orange," she said.
        "Is (the system) broken? I would think so."