SAN DIEGO (CN) – Bolstering its ranks to handle what it called a “border crisis,” the U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday announced it has hired additional prosecutors to handle immigration cases along the southwest border.
The department has added 35 new Assistant United States Attorney positions to be divvied up among five U.S. Attorney’s Offices along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The breakdown includes: eight new prosecutors in the Southern District of Texas; eight new prosecutors in the Southern District of California; seven new prosecutors in the Western District of Texas; six new prosecutors in the District of Arizona; and, six new prosecutors in the District of New Mexico.
The prosecutors are being tapped to specifically handle immigration prosecutions related to improper entry, illegal reentry and human smuggling cases.
The Justice Department is also utilizing 18 current supervisory immigration judges to adjudicate cases near the southwest border. The supervisory judges will hear cases in-person and through video teleconferencing. They represent a 50 percent increase in the current number of immigration judges, according to the Justice Department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a written statement: “By deploying these additional resources to the southwest border, the Justice Department and the Trump Administration take yet another step in protecting our nation, its borders and its citizens.”
Apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border ticked up 37 percent between February and March this year, prompting the department to issue a “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented immigration offenses. But apprehensions at the border have been down overall, falling to 304,000 in 2017, the lowest number in over three decades, according to U.S. Border Patrol data.
The hiring move by the Justice Department was “striking” given that local U.S. Attorney’s Offices typically decide prosecutors’ assignments, San Diego immigration attorney and former federal defender Andrew Nietor said in an interview.
Nietor pointed out that illegal entries are at historic lows and said a “border crisis” doesn’t exist.
“The Department of Justice seems to be focusing more on politics and optics than policies that actually affect U.S. citizens. There are plenty of other crises in this country that could better use the resources,” Nietor said.
The hiring announcement comes as all eyes are on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego where hundreds of Central Americans who traveled with a caravan to Tijuana, Mexico are attempting to seek asylum in the U.S.
Fleeing violence from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the cohort made up of mostly women and children has been camped outside the port of entry since Sunday, hoping to have their asylum cases heard.
Initially, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had “reached capacity” and could not accept additional asylum-seekers or process their applications, but began accepting small groups of people into the port of entry Monday night.
As of Wednesday, more than 50 of the 200 plus asylum-seekers had been allowed into the port of entry, according to caravan organizer Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
Nietor said immigration authorities should have the resources to “handle the straightforward intake process” for asylum-seekers.
“If we have the resources for prosecutors, if we have the resources to make plans for building walls, we certainly have resources to interview a few hundred people seeking asylum,” Nietor said.
Tuesday, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against 11 alleged caravan members it claims crossed into the U.S. illegally. Most of the undocumented immigrants were arrested Friday, but court documents make no reference to the Central American caravan.