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The Record: Lam and Immigration

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.