Immigration Prosecutions Hit New High
Critics Say Increased Use of Criminal Charges Strains System
Monday, June 2, 2008; Page A01
Federal law enforcement agencies have increased criminal prosecutions of immigration violators to record levels, in part by filing minor charges against virtually every person caught illegally crossing some stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to new U.S. data.
Officials say the threat of prison and a criminal record is a powerful deterrent, one that is helping drive down illegal immigration along the nearly 2,000-mile frontier between the United States and Mexico. Skeptics say that the government lacks the resources to sustain the strategy on the border and that the effort is diverting resources from more serious crimes such as drug and human smuggling.
Before Operation Streamline, as the program is known, most Mexican nationals caught at the border were fingerprinted and returned to Mexico without criminal charges. Since 2005, people other than Mexicans are generally held until removed.
In testimony to Congress this spring, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that Operation Streamline "is a very good program, and we are working to get it expanded across other parts of the border" because "it has a great deterrent effect." The program is now in place in parts of Texas and Arizona.
But Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said there is a shortage of jail beds and public defenders in areas where the program is operating. "Operation Streamline in its current form already strains the capabilities of the law enforcement system past the breaking point," she said.
Others note that, historically, immigration violations have been processed by U.S. administrative courts. Criminalizing illegal immigration while turning a blind eye to employers who provide the jobs that lure migrants makes for good election-year politics but poor policy, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
"This strategy pretty much has it backwards," he said. "It's going after desperate people who are crossing the border in search of a better way of life, instead of going after employers who are hiring people who have no right to work in this country."
First piloted in December 2005 near Del Rio, Tex., Operation Streamline requires that virtually everyone caught illegally crossing segments of the border be charged with at least a misdemeanor immigration count and jailed until they are brought to court and, if convicted, eventually deported. A conviction jeopardizes any future legal entry to the United States.
Federal officials credit the program and other measures for contributing to a 20 percent drop in apprehensions of illegal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007, to 859,000. That figure is on track to drop an additional 15 percent this year.
While apprehension statistics can be misleading -- they obviously do not account for border-crossers who evade capture -- federal authorities say the decline coincides with a decrease in financial remittances from illegal immigrants in the United States to families in Mexico.
In areas where it has been applied -- which total about 500 miles, or one-fourth of the border -- Operation Streamline has slowed border traffic more substantially.
The number of apprehensions fell by nearly 70 percent in the last quarter of 2008 along a 120-mile stretch near Yuma, Ariz., after the program was phased in between December 2006 and June 2007, and by nearly 70 percent along the 210-mile span near Del Rio. Apprehensions fell 22 percent after Operation Streamline was initiated in October along 171 miles near Laredo, Tex.