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Operation Streamline

Advocates: Fast-track immigration courts costly, ineffective

Program has 'failed by every measure' to deter illegal immigration

After more than a decade and at a cost of more than $7 billion, the fast-track immigration prosecution system known as Operation Streamline has failed to deter illegal immigration, advocates said in a report published Wednesday. 

Operation Streamline was one of a handful of "consequence delivery systems" developed by the federal government in 2005 with the aim of deterring illegal immigration by prosecuting two civil crimes, illegal entry and illegal re-entry, as felonies and sending immigrants to prisons. 

The report, titled "Indefensible: A decade of mass incarceration of migrants prosecuted for crossing the border" was a written by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies, two research and advocacy groups focused on reducing incarceration and lobbying against private prisons. 

After 10 years, nearly three-quarters of a million people have been prosecuted through Operation Streamline, said Judy A. Greene, director of Justice Strategies and one of the report's co-authors. "This gobbles up half of the federal court docket, where nearly half of federal prosecutions are for essentially trespassing," she said. 

"This policy has resulted in a human rights disaster. It’s ineffective, it’s wasteful and it’s failed by every measure," Greene said. 

Neither the Department of Justice, nor Homeland Security responded to requests for comment on the report's findings. 

Operation Streamline began in El Paso in 2005 and soon all of the federal courts along the southwestern border, with the exception of the Southern District of California, were operating Streamline courts. This includes Tucson, which began running the fast-track courts in 2008. 

In 2000, courts nationwide processed around 3,900 cases of improper entry and 8,000 felony re-entry cases. However, with Streamline in place, the total number of prosecutions for the same offenses peaked at 91,262 cases in 2013. 

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In April 2016, the top ranked lead charge for federal immigration prosecutions was illegal re-entry, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University.

Before the program was implemented, most immigration cases were handled within the civil immigration system. 

Between 2000 and 2013, the federal government opened 13 new privately operated prisons to deal with the influx of new convicts, said the report. 

This has made the government more reliant on companies like Corrections Corporation of America, which operates six facilities in Arizona, including the Eloy Detention Center. 

Since 2003, 155 people have died in custody at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities nationwide, including 14 who died at the Eloy Detention Center. 

The most recent death in Arizona was the Sept. 2015 death of Juan Garcia-Hernandez, 39, who collapsed outside the medical unit at the Florence Processing Center and died of a heart attack at a nearby hospital. 

Medical professionals with Human Rights Watch reviewed internal documents following the deaths and said that sub-par medical care and the use of isolation contributed to at least four deaths at ICE facilities. 

Sentencing in Streamline proceedings can range from 30 - 180 days, and repeat offenders with a criminal history may face more time. As a result, just under a quarter of inmates in federal prisoners are unauthorized immigrants, the report said. 

Critics have called Operation Streamline "assembly line" justice, arguing that the court process—which charges and sentences up to 70 - 80 immigrants in just a few hours—violates immigrants' civil rights. Federal officials have defended Streamline, arguing that it cuts down on recidivism for illegal entry. 

But research from the Center for Migration Studies, using data from University of Arizona's Migrant Border Crossing Survey, shows that more than half of the people who went through Streamline courts were attempting to reconnect with family members in the United States — including children who are U.S. citizens — when they were apprehended. 

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Despite significant the costs and thousands of prosecutions, there was "no credible evidence that incarceration deters immigration" said Greene. "Our analysis show no correlation between apprehensions and prosecutions," she said. 

"For a decade we have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars for a policy that lines the pockets of for-profit prison corporations,” said Bethany Carson, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership and a co-author of the report.

And, Carson noted that while the country has debated about mass incarceration of citizens, including an effort by the White House to release low-level offenders, the prosecution of immigrants is "seldom discussed." 

Many attorneys and judges agreed that Operation Streamline was not an effective deterrent, Carson said. 

"Nothing has worked to stem the tide," said Felix Recio, a retired U.S. magistrate judge in the Brownsville Division of the U.S. District Court in Texas.

"The only thing we have done is affected the lives of many people whose only crime was and is a desire to exercise their human rights to feed and care for themselves and their families."

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Paul Ingram

The logo of the Corrections Corporation of America hangs over the Eloy Detention Center, which the private prison company runs under contract with immigration authorities.