The Record: Lam and Immigration

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Despite the fact that no one from the Justice Department ever confronted Carol Lam over her performance on immigration prosecutions — and the fact that Lam’s connection to the Duke Cunningham case remains a far more credible logic for her firing –, the story that she was dismissed because of that continues to gain credence. So let’s take one last look at what the record shows.

First and foremost, the idea that Lam did not prioritize border cases is demonstrably false. As the Justice Department stated in a letter three months before Lam was fired, half of the prosecutors in Lam’s office were dedicated to criminal immigration cases.

Second, the demand that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and others were making, that her office have a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting alien smuggling, was an impossible one. All you need to do is look at the numbers. There are approximately 140,000 immigration arrests in Lam’s district per year — and approximately 110 lawyers in her office to handle them. They manage to file around 3,000 cases per year total, one of the largest loads in the country.

Third (and it bears repeating), Justice Department officials never confronted Lam about her immigration policy.

The ire directed at Lam from Republican lawmakers and some within the Justice Department had to do with a choice Lam made. Given the chronic lack of resources — approximately 140,000 immigration arrests in Lam’s district per year vs. approximately 110 lawyers in her office –, she decided to use her resources to prosecute the more serious cases. As an internal Justice Department report summarized the strategy:

SDCA [the Southern District of California] does not prosecute purely economic migrants. SDCA directs its resources to bringing felony charges against the most egregious violators, focusing on illegal aliens with substantial criminal histories such as violent/major felons, recidivist felons, repeat immigration violators on supervised release, and alien smuggles and guides. SDCA does not prosecute foot guides that do not have a serious criminal history.

It was a calculation with potentially adverse poltical consequences, since it would mean a drop in the sheer number of cases filed. And it was the reason that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and others directed cricitism at Lam.Issa and his cohorts wanted a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting alien smuggling, an impossible demand, given the lack of resources. Nevertheless, armed with a “Border Patrol Report” of doubtful provenance, Issa put heat on the Justice Department concerning Lam’s prosecution numbers. In the face of this very public criticism, Lam made the decision to stay quiet, rather than hit back by criticizing the Justice Department for the lack of resources available to her office.

Much has been made of the internal grumbling in the Justice Department about Lam in this time period (most of it coming from acting associate attorney general Bill Mercer, but more on that later), but there are some main points to be made.

The Department commissioned one Daniel Fridman, counsel to the Deputy Attorney General, to write up a report on Lam’s handling of immigration cases in June 2006. The report’s conclusion was clear. If the Justice Department wanted higher prosecution numbers, there were two steps to take: 1) have Lam change her policy of seeking tougher cases 2) give her more prosecutors. Tellingly, there was nothing in the report about Lam’s failure to prioritize border cases or a failure of leadership in the office.

As for the first recommendation, Lam was never asked to change her district’s border prosecution policy. Justice Department officials clearly contemplated confronting Lam (and Karl Rove has dishonestly claimed that such a confrontation occurred), but somehow failed to make the concrete step of actually broaching the central issue.

But the Justice Department did follow the second recommendation, to add prosecutors.

On July 31, 2006, Alberto Gonzales announced that he was adding 35 prosecutors to Lam’s districts and others to focus exclusively on immigration and drug cases. Twenty of those were to be dedicated to immigration.

“I don’t know how many I’m going to get,” Lam told The San Diego Union-Tribune after the announcement, but said “I’d love to have all 20.” She added that having more lawyers would allow her to prosecute more low-level cases: “We draw the line at whatever point we have the resources to handle…. [The new lawyers] will allow us to move that line down in terms of the cases we’re able to prosecute.”

But there is evidence that Lam’s office had managed to boost case numbers even without the extra prosecutors. Justice Department official William Moschella’s letter about Lam, written in late August, noted that the number of alien smuggling prosecutions had “risen sharply” in the last year over the previous one. And because her office had targetted more serious violations, she delivered longer sentences.

But Lam was abruptly fired little more than three months later, without being told the cause.

Next up: Justice Department official Bill Mercer’s apparently personal vendetta against Lam.