(ESPAÑOL) The immigration caseload has grown so large in New Mexico – with apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants more than doubling in two years after several years of decline – that U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez in June capped the number of nonviolent border crossers his office will prosecute at 150 a month.
There are hundreds more who could be prosecuted each month but aren’t, according to law enforcement sources. Immigrant advocates question whether nonviolent offenders should be prosecuted at all.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico, which has about 75 attorneys, most of them in Albuquerque, has a stunning array of cases under its purview beyond the immigration offenses that can dominate attorney and staff time in southern New Mexico.
Just recently, it has been tasked with prosecuting cases from an operation that nabbed 104 Bernalillo County residents on firearms and narcotics trafficking charges; dozens of defendants allegedly belonging to the violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang; and the arsons that recently scorched nine Albuquerque businesses, which could lead to domestic terrorism charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office cap applies to a specific offense known as a “1326a,” illegal re-entry, without complicating factors like drug trafficking or extensive criminal histories. Those nonviolent offenders typically receive “time served” at sentencing, which in New Mexico amounts to 30 to 45 days on average, thanks to a fast-track system that moves these offenders quickly from arrest to deportation.
The lead investigative agency on illegal entry and re-entry is U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Spokesman Ramiro Cordero confirmed that apprehensions at the New Mexico border, including immigrants who could be charged with felony illegal re-entry, are far outpacing prosecutions.
Before the U.S. Attorney’s Office scaled back, the Las Cruces court was on track to surpass its caseload records; the new limit only puts the court back on track to meet its usual numbers this year, according to U.S. District Judge Robert Brack.
Brack sentences an average of 1,800 immigration-related cases each year. U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales sees a similar number of cases as Brack, while judges from Albuquerque regularly cycle in to help them work through the caseload.