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Border Enforcement Program Critics Say It’s Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair

As Republicans push for increased border enforcement, many have sought to expand Operation Streamline, a “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement program that automatically slates all migrants caught crossing the border illegally for criminal prosecution. (Immigrant deportation is generally a civil, not a criminal, matter.) But critics of the program point to serious concerns with Operation Streamline, claiming it is too expensive, too unfair and has not been proven effective at deterring illegal immigration. The Phoenix New Times provides a comprehensive — and long — look at these criticisms in a piece today on border crossers who plead guilty as part of Operation Streamline.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I’ll break it down into the concerns it raises about Operation Streamline:

**Cost: **It’s unclear exactly how much Operation Streamline costs, because it pulls money from various involved agencies rather than having its own budget. But studies have found the program could cost as much as $1 billion per year. Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, have argued for additional funding of Operation Streamline as part of their proposed 10-point border security plan.

**Strategies: **In part due to the high cost of prosecuting so many migrants, an Operation Streamline court in Tuscon, Ariz., only sees 70 of the 1,000 migrant apprehensions per day. The Phoenix New Times reported the group of 70 migrants is generally about 70 percent first-timers and 30 percent migrants who had been apprehended for crossing the border before — meaning they face felony illegal re-entry and misdemeanor illegal entry. The punishments for these offenses are very different: Misdemeanor illegal entrants can serve as few as three days, while felony illegal re-entry can earn a migrant up to twenty years in prison.

What happens to the approximately 930 migrants apprehended each day but not chosen for Operation Streamline hearings? They are sent back to Mexico, which means some migrants who re-entered illegally — the criminal illegal immigrants the Department of Homeland Security claims are its priority — are passed over by the supposedly “zero tolerance” program.

Operation Streamline courts also see a fair number of people who were apprehended on their way back to Mexico, which critics argue is a Border Patrol tactic to drive up enforcement data. “They’re boosting [the Border Patrol's apprehension] numbers,” Federal Public Defender Matthew Johnson told the Phoenix New Times, “by arresting the people going southbound.”

Effectiveness: The piece also points to concerns about the effectiveness of Operation Streamline as a deterrent. While proponents of the program argue it will keep migrants from crossing the border illegally, this seems to not fully be the case — at least anecdotally. The Phoenix New Times spoke to many migrants who were prosecuted under Operation Streamline who said they planned to return to the United States. While Border Patrol claims there is little recidivism, the possibility that migrants return without detection means actual data on illegal return is hard to come by. Overall, experts argue the program lacks consistent review and oversight to ensure it’s doing its job.

**Justice: **Operation Streamline courts usually operate through mass hearings, where a public defender represents a large number of clients and judges issue questions and decisions en masse. Defendants sign away their right to an individual judge to enter Operation Streamline, because the process promises to be much faster: a couple of days in jail, typically, rather than months awaiting a trial. Still, critics argue the program creates criminal prosecutions without adequate defense (many defendants cannot communicate with their public defender due to language barriers) and unjust court procedures.

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