October 26th, 2007
While attention has been focused on the inane border wall, immigration authorities have been weaving a much more insidious legal dragnet along the border. Bush’s Border Patrol announced today that it is expanding its “zero tolerance” policy towards undocumented immigrants from Del Rio and Yuma, Arizona to the busy Laredo sector. In a nutshell, that means the agency will try to throw every single immigrant they catch into jail. Doing so will require yet more detention centers, jails, and prisons. Zero tolerance likely won’t stop in Laredo. Border Patrol assistant chief Ramon Rivera was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “We’re hoping it goes nationwide.”
The courts in Laredo are already swamped. Public defenders I talked to two years ago for a story said it was all they could do to provide a basic legal defense for their clients. The courts then were corral-like, with dozens of defendants coming before the magistrate on a daily basis. Laredo had to build a new 1,500-bed detention center to hold them all. That year the Southern District of Texas (Laredo’s district) led the nation in the number of immigration-related convictions - 17,307 in 2005 - even besting Texas Western (where Del Rio is located) at 3,054. How in the world will defenders, prosecutors, and judges handle the caseload once every single illegal entrant is booked, charged, prosecuted, and jailed?
If the Bush administration, with the backing of a pliant Congress, is really intent on expanding zero-tolerance to the whole border and perhaps even moving the program into the heartland, it will necessitate another huge expansion in detention centers, jails, and prisons. The Immigration and Customs Service (ICE), which runs immigrant detention centers, is asking Congress to fund 40,000 beds - 14,000 over the 26,000 beds the nation has right now. Increased prosecutions will also increase the need for more jail and prison beds. Much of that demand will be met by for-profit prison corporations.
This is all fine and dandy for some people, maybe even most people in this country. Some will say the law’s the law and, after all, THEY’RE ILLEGAL. This says something about our priorities. Because the reality is that resources are finite. Prosecutors must make decisions on what crimes they prosecute, administrations have to set budgets for law enforcement, and societies have to decide collectively what behavior to reward and punish. Just consider this: Immigration is now the number-one federally prosecuted crime - not drugs, weapons, white collar crime, or even terrorism. And the most prosecuted immigration crime is illegal entry, the simple offense of an economic immigrant, one that is committed hundreds of thousands of times every year.