San Diego – A federal judge was irritated when an attorney for dozens of people charged with crossing the border illegally asked for more time to meet with clients before setting bond.

It was pushing 5 p.m. on a Friday in May, and the judge in San Diego was wrestling with a surge in her caseload that resulted from the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute everyone who enters the country illegally.

“It’s been a long week,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Nita Stormes said, suggesting that the court needed more judges and public defenders.

On Monday, the court will try to curb the caseload by assigning a judge to oversee misdemeanor immigration cases and holding large, group hearings that critics call assembly-line justice.

The move puts California in line with other border states, and it captures the strain that zero tolerance has put on federal courts, particularly in the nation’s most populous state, which has long resisted mass hearings for illegal border crossing.

Immigration cases were light for the first few months of the year in the Southern District of California. There were no illegal-entry cases in February, only four in March and 16 in April, according to the clerk’s office. But when zero tolerance took full effect, the caseload skyrocketed to 513 in May and 821 in June.

The mass hearings can be traced back to December 2005, when the Border Patrol introduced “Operation Streamline” in Del Rio, Texas, to prosecute every illegal entry. Over the next three years, the practice spread to every federal court district along the border except California, whose federal prosecutors argued that scarce resources could be better spent going after smuggling networks and repeat crossers with serious criminal histories.

Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego when Streamline began until 2007, said zero-tolerance programs are “ultimately ineffective,” saying they boost conviction numbers but don’t have a proportionate impact on reducing crime.

“The sentences become much shorter to the point where everyone is getting time served or a few weeks in custody, and they’re turned around and come back in again,” she said. “At the end of the day, the system grinds down to a halt and things start deteriorating.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has held up Streamline as a model, was the first attorney general to seriously challenge California’s position.

In May, he announced that the Homeland Security Department would refer every arrest for prosecution, which led to widespread separation of children from their parents. Adam Braverman, the newly appointed U.S. attorney in San Diego, had no room to push back.

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego said in a statement that it was “committed to securing the border and enforcing criminal immigration laws in a way that respects due process and the dignity of all involved.”


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