Apr 24 2013
By Miriam Jordan
The Wall Street Journal
April 24, 2013
The Senate immigration bill introduced last week calls for tripling the number of criminal prosecutions of migrants who illegally enter the U.S. along the busiest border area, but the court that handles cases there already has an overloaded docket and a chronic shortage of resources.
Before 2005, migrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol were returned to their country or processed through civil immigration courts. As part of George W. Bush's strategy to get tough on border policy, he launched a program dubbed Operation Streamline mandating that those arrested for unlawful entry would be prosecuted in criminal court and, if convicted, face a prison sentence.
First-time crossers face criminal misdemeanor charges, punishable with up to 180 days in prison; repeat offenders face felony charges and longer sentences.
Tucked in the current Senate bill, the provision calls for the U.S. District Court in Arizona to bolster the program. If enacted, the bill would increase the number of individuals who face prosecution for sneaking into the U.S. along a 262-mile rugged desert swath of Mexico's border with Arizona—from the current 70 a day to 210. The bill would allocate $250 million over five years to the Tucson U.S. Attorney's Office, additional magistrate judges, the public defender's office and the marshal's office to achieve that goal.
"Operation Streamline is the most effective deterrent program DHS runs, so it's an important element of the border security provisions in the bill," said Brian Rogers, spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who is in the bipartisan group that drafted the bill.
U.S. Border Patrol officials say the program has discouraged potential migrants from attempting illegal crossings. In seeking congressional support for Streamline in 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said, "the deterrent effect…has had pronounced results on the number of aliens attempting illegal entry/re-entry."
Critics say Streamline is expensive, diverts limited resources from core law enforcement priorities, strains U.S. courts and prisons, and undermines the due process of immigrants. They say it creates criminals by prosecution.
Although Streamline covers much of the Southwest border, the bill doesn't call for bolstering it in other heavily trafficked border regions, such as the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Representatives for Mr. McCain and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who also helped write the bill, said the senators wouldn't oppose expanding the program elsewhere.
Streamline has already overwhelmed many border courts in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The bill doesn't address the backlog of criminal cases in the District Court of Arizona, where the chief judge declared a judicial emergency in 2011 to secure more time to tackle the caseload.
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