- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - Criminal felony immigration cases in New Mexico’s federal courts have ballooned in the last five years, according to a recent research study on U.S. courts.

Judges in federal court in Las Cruces, which receives the majority of the New Mexico federal district immigration cases, have been dealing with a huge backlog of cases involving deported immigrants who re-enter.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on federal government spending and staffing, found an 80 percent jump in such cases in New Mexico. According to a compilation of U.S. court statistics, New Mexico courts handled 3,749 cases in 2015. Compare that to 2,078 cases in 2011.

In Las Cruces, U.S. Judge Robert Brack thought the appointment of Judge Kenneth Gonzales in 2013 would alleviate his caseload. But Brack handled 1,800 cases last year. Gonzales handled 1,600 - most of which were immigration-related.

Judge William “Chip” Johnson, of Albuquerque, was recruited to visit and handle several hundred. Johnson said a federal judge elsewhere would usually preside over 75 cases a year.

Judges, prosecutors and other experts say the increase is partly due to a rise in border apprehensions, according to the Albuquerque Journal (https://bit.ly/1WyBDsJ). Another is the U.S. Attorney’s ability to prosecute nearly all re-entries as felonies as part of a “fast-track” program. Also, New Mexico judges typically give out shorter or “time served” sentences if a border-crosser has no criminal record or drug charges.

Other border districts such as in Texas and Arizona tend to charge immigrants in the country illegally with misdemeanors. In those cases, they can get jail sentences of four to six months.

“I think we should have a uniform policy across the border,” Johnson said. “Each district has done it differently in the 14½ years that I have been a federal district judge.”

Felony prosecutions do deter people from coming back illegally, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon Martinez said.

“If the person comes back after receiving that felony, that ratchets up the potential for jail time or incarceration,” Martinez said. “And each time they come back, the consequences get worse. That is the deterrent effect of having that felony in place.”

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, https://www.abqjournal.com

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