As the nation discusses immigration reform including border security, a number of civil, religious and human rights groups are denouncing a border prosecution initiative which immediately places those crossing the border into the U.S. federal criminal justice system. This initiative, called Operation Streamline, is in effect in several states across the country. Vicky Gaubeca, Director of the ACLU-New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, said the program has strained federal courts and diverted resources which could better be used to fight crime and improve public safety.
Gaubeca also said Operation Streamline furthers racial inequality, since Latinos are now 35 percent of the current prison population. “The only people who are benefiting are private prison companies, since 43 percent of these detainees are held in private facilities,” said Gaubeca.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his organization echoes the Vatican, which has condemned the program. “Immigrants who cross the border looking for a job or work or to reunite with families are not criminals, and should not be treated as criminals,” he said. Appleby added it was “inhumane” to have these immigrants “commingling with criminals” and to imprison immigrants who are unaware of their rights.
Judge James Stiven, a former U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of California, said his district did not participate in Operation Streamline. “Our policy has always been and still is to file felony charges against those immigrants to be found to present a danger to the public safety,” said Stiven, saying the priority should be to detain immigrants with a prior criminal history, or gang activity, terrorist organizations or danger to communities. He said people who are found to be undocumented should be dealt with administratively.
The Administration, however, has defended the initiative as a successful way of keeping the borders safe and combating undocumented immigration. “In the twelve months from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011, there were more than 30,000 prosecutions under Operation Streamline across the border, with more than half of these occurring in the Tucson Sector,” testified Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in May of 2011. Napolitano also said Border Patrol apprehensions had decreased 36 percent in the previous two years, and the region was safer.
Heather Williams, an Arizona Assistant Federal public defender, said “the border is more secure than at any time in our history; the U.S. border patrol is better staffed today than at any time in its 80 years.” Williams questioned whether the public knows that illegal re-entry is now the most prosecuted federal crime, and 50 percent of all federal cases are immigration cases.
Border security, however, continues to be a big part of immigration reform talks. The bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” has proposed tying a path to citizenship to secure border metrics. The House proposal is also expected to have a strong border enforcement component.