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Border Crackdown Diverts Resources From Drug Cases, 'USA Today' Reports


Let's talk through a side effect of the zero tolerance policy for people caught crossing the border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced it in May.


JEFF SESSIONS: If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple.

INSKEEP: Enacting the policy has not been simple. As Sessions publicly promised, federal authorities seized the children of thousands of people. That triggered waves of horror and protest that forced President Trump to abandon that part of the policy, and thousands of parents have yet to find their children. Now USA Today is reporting another serious complication.

Reporter Brad Heath obtained a Justice Department email saying what federal prosecutors are having to do in order to follow the zero tolerance policy. He's on the line. Mr. Heath, welcome to the program.

BRAD HEATH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the email say?

HEATH: Sure. This is an email from a Justice Department supervisor in San Diego to dozens of officials at Homeland Security. And it tells them two important things. The first is that the federal prosecutors in Southern California have had to divert resources away from smuggling cases to handle these immigration prosecutions. And the second is it erected a series of barriers basically that will make it a lot harder to bring smuggling cases into federal court.

INSKEEP: Woah, wait a minute. Smuggling cases - we're talking about drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border? They've had to take resources away from that?

HEATH: Yes, exactly. We're talking about cases in which the Border Patrol detects large loads of narcotics coming through the ports of entry.

INSKEEP: And so this is something that the U.S. government considers a serious problem and that President Trump especially considers a serious problem. And you're saying that prosecutors were writing in May that, in order to prosecute ordinary border crossers, they would have less of an effort that they could make against drug smuggling.

HEATH: Well, what happened is Attorney General Sessions ordered the Justice Department to begin prosecuting every adult. And part of his instructions were that this is now your highest priority, you know, regardless of what other priorities your office might have. And to the U.S. attorney's office in Southern California, that's going to mean a huge increase in their caseload. I mean, the number of cases they handle every year could more than quadruple under that approach.

INSKEEP: How serious a crime is it if someone crosses the border with a child however they cross the border? They're not carrying drugs. They just crossed the border. How serious is that?

HEATH: It's not an especially serious crime. And we at USA Today have looked at several thousand of these since the start of the zero tolerance push. And the vast majority of them are resolved the same way. People get brought in from immigration detention in the morning. They plead guilty. They're sentenced to whatever time they've already spent in custody - so no additional jail time - and a $10 fee that they're not actually really made to pay. So it sort of seems like a symbolic undertaking.

INSKEEP: So for that symbolic prosecution, they've been diverting from drug cases. I get that. But I'm remembering when Jeff Sessions announced this policy. He didn't say to prosecutors across the country, abandon drug prosecutions. He said prosecute everybody. And if you need more resources, let us know. Have prosecutors been getting more resources to handle these border-crossing cases?

HEATH: The Justice Department has created some new positions in Southern California and elsewhere. They've moved some attorneys. They're also taking some military attorneys to help prosecute these cases. What's not clear in San Diego at the moment is whether those are new attorney jobs that have to be filled or new attorneys that were moved down from elsewhere.

INSKEEP: So they haven't quite figured out what to do, but they're going ahead with the zero tolerance policy anyway. Now, very briefly, what have people in San Diego or elsewhere in the Justice Department said to you about what they're doing?

HEATH: What seems fairly clear is, you know, when the Justice Department comes up with a policy of zero tolerance - we're going to prosecute all of these - it ties the hands of attorneys so that they have to do less of something else.

INSKEEP: OK, Mr. Heath, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

HEATH: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Brad Heath is an investigative reporter at USA Today, and he joined us by Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.