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San Diego – The 14 defendants had been charged with entering the country illegally. But there was a problem: When their cases were called in court, they could not show up because they had already been deported.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Gallo quickly concluded that none of the migrants could be prosecuted – a decision that struck at the heart of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which calls for treating illegal border crossing as a common crime. He dismissed all the charges and ordered that all bond money be returned.

The same scene played out every day for several weeks in San Diego – another example of judges challenging President Donald Trump’s moves on immigration in ways large and small. Last month, a different judge halted an administration policy to deny asylum to people who enter the country illegally.

The dismissals did not free any migrants or allow any of them back into the U.S. But the rulings defeated the purpose of zero tolerance, which is to notch convictions.

Gallo and other California judges forced the government to choose between deporting migrants immediately or risking that the criminal cases against them will be dropped. To avoid getting cases dismissed, the administration could not conduct the type of lightning-quick prosecutions that it practices elsewhere along the border.

Federal prosecutors introduced the mass hearings on immigration charges in California in July, adopting a model that has been in place for years in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The hearings soon began running past 6 p.m. regularly.

Defense attorneys frequently objected that they didn’t have enough time to consult with their clients, who appeared in the same clothes they wore crossing the border a day or so earlier.

Then, on Sept. 17, Gallo announced that judges would no longer accept guilty pleas at initial appearances, as they do in Arizona and Texas. Instead, they began setting second hearings for five days later. Immigrants who posted bail before their return dates were deported.

“The government, in many respects, was duplicitous,” Gallo said on a recent Friday, referring to the decision to deport defendants before they could return to court for resolution of their cases.

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