For the last 10 years, in federal courts across the Southwest border, the federal government has systematically prosecuted unlawful border crossers in group hearings with little-to-no due process. These prosecutions, often referred to as Operation Streamline, were intended to deter illegal entry and reentry. Instead, they have clogged up the federal courts and wasted precious government resources with little evidence that the program is achieving its goals.
Operation Streamline’s ten-year-anniversary will be marked on December 16, 2015. It began in Del Rio, Texas and since that time, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has worked aggressively with local U.S. Attorneys from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to prosecute border crossers for illegal entry, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in prison, and illegal re-entry, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. According to Border Patrol estimates, over 279,000 individuals have been referred to DOJ for prosecution from December 2005 to March 2014. These prosecutions are concentrated in border patrol sectors across the Southwest in Arizona and Texas.
Immigration status crimes have become the most prosecuted federal crimes in the country with entry and re-entry prosecutions going up 130 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, immigration offenses accounted for half of all federal prosecutions in 2012 with the next highest offense being “drug offenses coming in at only 15 percent.”
From its inception, Operation Streamline has been a controversial program. As detailed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, it raises significant due process concerns:
“Individuals processed through Streamline appear before a federal magistrate in mass hearings that may have 40 or up to 80 people appearing and entering pleadings at the same time. Nearly all who are charged in such proceedings are unable to consult with their legal counsel within the rapid timeframe and many plead guilty without understanding the consequences. Judges render decisions in a matter of seconds or minutes.”
In addition, in May 2015, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released a report which casts doubt on whether the prosecutions achieve the desired results. It found that Border Patrol is “not fully and accurately measuring Streamline’s effect on deterring” illegal immigration and that CBP targets for prosecution individuals seeking asylum. This practice violates U.S. obligations of the Refugee Convention.
Furthermore, the dramatic increase in criminal prosecutions has meant that private prison companies are profiting. In Fiscal Year 2011 alone, “the federal government paid immense sums of taxpayer money to private prison companies, $744 million and $640 million to CCA and GEO Group, respectively.” According to a Grassroots Leadership report, by 2011 Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group, the nation’s two largest private prison companies, “enjoyed a combined $780 million increase in annual federal revenues since 2005.” The report also notes that since the inception of Operation Streamline until 2012, the federal government spent “$5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry, above and beyond the civil immigration system.”
Although it is difficult to quantify the full costs of prosecuting individuals for illegal entry and reentry, the National Immigration Forum has estimated that in Arizona alone, the costs are as high “as $10 million per month… [A]nother $3.6 million per month is spent on defense lawyers in Arizona, primarily court-appointed private attorneys. The cost to prosecute defendants in Operation Streamline averages $10,000 a day and $50,000 a week in Tucson alone.”
As we enter the second decade of Operation Streamline and the final year of the Obama Administration it is time for the Attorney General to heed the call of 171 civil rights, human rights, and faith-based organizations and end this wasteful and unjustified program.
Photo by Abd allah Foteih.