Judge Robert Brack is the busiest federal judge in the United States. From his bench in the bordertown of Las Cruces, N.M., Brack expects to hear between 1,000 and 1,200 cases this year, more than twice the average number tried by district court judges.
Almost all of his cases have one thing in common: they involved illegal immigrants reentering the United States, looking for work and finding jail time instead.
"I'm on the bench every morning of every day for several hours, sentencing defendants. A very high percentage of those involve Mexican citizens charged with felony reentry. Then I take a break, come back and do it some more," said Brack, who was ranked No. 1 in the country in overall caseload, according to federal statistics and Syracuse University.
Immigration-related felony trials have been on the rise for several years, straining the resources of courts and prisons from Texas to California and illustrating the difficulties of policing the country's primary point of entry for illegal immigrants and drugs.
All along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, courts are clogged with immigration-related cases. As a result, the region's courtrooms handle a disproportionate amount of the country's crime. Just five of the country's 94 districts -- South California, New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas and South Texas -- handle 75 percent of all the criminal cases in federal district courts around the country.
The number of immigration trials have spiked since 2005, a result of a federal program called Operation Streamline that puts illegal immigrants on a fast track to prosecution, detention and deportation.
In the first seven months of 2008, the government reported 38,443 new immigration prosecutions. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University, estimates there will be 65,902 immigration cases this year, a 65 percent increase over last year and a 216 percent increase over 2003.
For the Department of Homeland Security, Operation Streamline is an indispensable tool needed to secure the border. In the past year, the government says, the deterrent of prison time has dramatically decreased the number of the people trying to cross the border from Mexico.
Critics, however, contend that the increased number of cases strain an already burdened judicial system, depriving lawyers and judges of ample time to hear cases and denying defendants the right to a fair trial.
They also contend that resources have been diverted from pursuing offenders more dangerous than the typical migrant worker and that prosecutors cannot use their own discretion in choosing which violators to go after.
"I'm all for national security and border security," said Brack, who was appointed to the bench in 2003 by President Bush. "The people I generally see are humble people who have no criminal offenses other than coming back and forth to pick chili. We're spending a lot of time catching these folks when we could concentrate on those penetrating our border to do us harm."
In a speech on immigration last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the program was vital to border security.