After more than a half-year of zero tolerance immigration prosecution policy in San Diego’s federal court, the numbers are in — and they provide one eye-opening way of capturing the policy’s impact on the local court in a pair of digits.
According to the U.S. District Court, in 2018 there were 6,461 cases of misdemeanor unlawful entry cases — the most basic immigration charge that carries a maximum sentence of six months in a federal lockup.
In 2017, there was a total of 22 of those kinds of cases filed, or fewer than two per month.
That works out to a year-over-year increase of 29,268 percent.
The total number of misdemeanor illegal entry cases in 2018 exceeded the total number of more serious felony cases — drugs, weapons, child pornography — filed during the year — even though those cases also increased from 2017.
Total felony cases filed in the court came to 5,491 — an increase of 24.6 percent from the total of 4,407 from the year before.
The skyrocketing number of illegal entry cases are a direct result of the Trump administration’s policy inaugurated in May that ordered criminal prosecution for all illegal border crossers.
That policy has had a significant impact on the court — jamming court calendars, extending court days into the early evening, and straining the capacity of detention facilities and jails. In an effort to deal with the new reality, officials set up a special courtroom in July just to handle the illegal entry cases.
“It has overwhelmed everyone,” said defense attorney Jami Ferrara, who serves on a committee that Chief Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz set up in May to address the impacts of the surge in cases.
The committee is comprised of judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
The policy was a far-reaching departure for the border district. Since the mid-1990s, federal prosecutors in San Diego had adopted policies that focused more on felony charges against those who re-enter the country unlawfully, particularly those with a criminal record or a history of numerous illegal crossings.
That policy meant few misdemeanor prosecutions. With the introduction of zero tolerance, there is no let up in sight, according to Ferrara.
“I don’t think it is going to be slowing down,” she said.
At first it appeared that the avalanche of illegal border crossing cases was crowding out pursuit of other, more serious cases. In the first month of the zero tolerance policy, the number of border drug smuggling cases resulting from arrests by federal officials that the District Attorney’s Office filed in San Diego Superior Court doubled from the same period in the previous year.
The office filed 96 drug cases from federal agencies like Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol between May 21 and June 21 last year. The same period the year before, there were 47 cases.
At the time defense lawyers in Chula Vista said the increase had a noticable impact on the courts there. But in the succeeding months, that impact seemed to have abated.
Figures from July through the end of the year supplied by the District Attorney’s Office show from July to the end of the year there were 222 cases from federal law enforcement agencies submitted to the office for prosecution.
For 2017, there were 230 cases submitted.
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