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Yuma Sector stopping Op. Streamline cases for some illegal immigrants

Federal immigration officials are scaling back a program meant to fast-track prosecution and imprisonment of immigrants crossing into the United States illegally, according to the Yuma County sheriff.

Sheriff Leon Wilmot said he "received very disturbing news" during an Aug. 19 briefing with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that federal prosecutors in Arizona will stop prosecuting first-time offenders on illegal immigration charges if they have been apprehended in the Yuma Sector. The change, Wilmot said, brings the Yuma Sector into line with the current policy in the much larger Tucson Sector.

Wilmot said this change "undermines the mission of local law enforcement agencies throughout Yuma County" by disrupting a zero-tolerance policy and gives a "strong impression" that the decision is designed to direct traffic and criminal activity back toward Yuma.

The federal Yuma Sector includes 126 miles along the border before bearing north to include parts of California and the entire state of Nevada.

Wilmot wrote an Aug. 19 letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, laying out his concerns.

On Sept. 8, McCain responded by sending a letter signed by himself and Sen. Jeff Flake to Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and the current U.S. Attorney in Arizona.

In the letter, the Republican senators called Operation Streamline a key part of the federal government's policy in the Yuma Sector and asked for clarification on current prosecutorial guidance. McCain and Flake asked if this was the right time to implement such a policy, especially considering the lack of border-related legislation and this summer's rush of unaccompanied minors to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Yuma Sector has widely been called an example of successful border enforcement policy.

In 2005, a combination of fencing, new infrastructure and manpower drove down the number of apprehensions in the sector nearly 95 percent, from 119,000 in 2006 to just over 6,000 last year.

Christine Jones, running to become the Republican candidate for governor, dragged Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau around the state during the primaries to repeat this assertion during a number of border town halls.

So far, federal immigration and border officials have been silent on this change.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not provide comment on this issue.

Operation Streamline has remained controversial since its creation in 2005, when it was used in the Del Rio Sector in Texas.

In the program, an immigration judge will hold a hearing for around 70 people accused of immigration-related offenses in a single day, working them quickly through arraignment, plea and sentencing in a manner of minutes for each person. Most of those who go through Streamline courts plead guilty to entering the country illegally and receive sentences of 30 to 120 days, including credit for time served. 

Critics argue that the "enforcement with consequences program" violates the rights of those who go through Operation Streamline.

Last year, immigration activists stopped a Department of Homeland Security bus loaded with immigrants along the Interstate 10 frontage road in Tucson and chained themselves to the wheels while another group chained themselves to the front gate of the federal courthouse.

Federal officials will point to the program's low recidivism rate as part of its success. In fiscal year 2012, the recidivism rate for Operation Streamline was just above 10 percent, far below voluntary returns at nearly 24 percent and hovering just above standard prosecutions which at around 9 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Around 209,000 people went through prosecution under the program and were about 45 percent of immigration-related prosecutions in districts along the Southwest border, according to the analysis.

In Yuma, Wilmot noted 100 percent of the people apprehended in the sector are processed through the fast-track system, however, he notes that local county prosecutors have increasingly taken up cases the federal officials have not.

Meanwhile, the immigration court system is experiencing an increasing backlog of cases.

In Arizona alone, there are more than 14,000 cases jammed up in the state's four courts, taking an average of 680 days to close, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University. Nationally, there are more than 400,000 cases pending in immigration court.

Immigration judges have ordered 82,878 people deported this year, according to TRAC, but in only one out of every five cases did the government seek a removal order because of criminal activity or a threat to public safety.

In Arizona, this amounted to around 1,100 cases.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Department of Homeland Security bus carrying alleged illegal immigrants to U.S. District Court in Tucson.