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Immigration Prosecutions Hit New High

Border Patrol agents patrol the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Tex. Apprehensions in the sector are down 70 percent since Operation Streamline began.
Border Patrol agents patrol the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Tex. Apprehensions in the sector are down 70 percent since Operation Streamline began. (By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
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David Gonzales, the U.S. marshal for Arizona, said the program is swamping federal courthouses and jails.

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"If [Streamline] was all we were doing, that would be fine. But we also have to deal with all other federal prisoners in southern Arizona and all other prisoners federal agencies bring in," Gonzales said.

Other federal officials are more critical, warning that the focus on immigration is distorting the functions of law enforcement and the courts. Several Arizona officials noted that U.S. prosecutors there last year were so short on resources, they chose not to prosecute a number of marijuana seizures of less than 500 pounds, although they later revised the guideline to 20 pounds.

"We're concerned about the misdirection of resources," said Heather Williams, first assistant to the federal public defender of Arizona. Each day her office's lawyers spend on misdemeanor border-crossing cases, she said, "they're not talking about a drug case, a sex crime, a murder, assault or any number of white-collar cases -- and the same is obviously true of the prosecutors."

"This is taking on a life of its own," she said.

Williams also warned that the program tests the U.S. legal system's promise of fairness to the accused. "If we as a U.S. citizen were placed in any other country on the planet, and had to resolve a case in a day that could result in being deported and having a criminal record, we would be outraged, and so would our government," she said.

Boyd, the Justice Department spokesman, said the government has not seen decreases in all other types of prosecutions and is increasing resources to support five border-area U.S. attorney's offices.

Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency that includes the Border Patrol, said that even if Operation Streamline-related prosecutions near Tucson deter only a few illegal immigrants, that will free up resources that can be deployed elsewhere. He noted that U.S. authorities have been able to expand the program bit by bit since starting with a five-mile stretch near Del Rio.

"Obviously," Friel said, "we think it's proving to be an effective tool as part of a larger strategy to gain effective control of the border."

Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.


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