U.S. senators John McCain and Jeff Flake have proposed an amendment to the federal budget that would create a spending-neutral reserve fund to support a zero-tolerance approach to prosecuting illegal border crossers.
The motion follows reports that the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office plans to stop using a controversial program, called Operation Streamline, to indict people who are caught crossing the border illegally for the first time. Instead, Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot has said, law enforcement has been instructed to concentrate on rounding up those who have criminal rap sheets or a history of immigration violations.
McCain, who is also pushing a Senate resolution to recognize the success of Operation Streamline, credits "stepped-up efforts" under the program with transforming the border between Yuma and Mexico from, he says, one of the most porous in the United States into one of the most impregnable. Southwestern courts have used the program, which expedites criminal prosecution by allowing judges to review and sentence border-crossers in groups rather than one at a time, to try more than 208,939 people since it kicked off in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service. That accounts for about 45 percent of the region's immigration-related cases.
Just 10 percent of the immigrants who pass through Operation Streamline re-offend, compared to 24 percent of those who are permitted to leave the United States voluntarily without undergoing formal removal proceedings, the Congressional Research Service reports. As a result, supporters argue, in the Yuma sector, where the Sheriff's Office boasts a 100 percent prosecution rate, the number of immigrants apprehended while hopping the border dropped from 140,000 in 2005 to less than 6,000 in 2014.
"The citizens of Arizona cannot afford to lose the gains that have been made to secure the southern border," McCain said in a news release. "I will not stop fighting to ensure that we have the best policies in place to keep our communities safe."
Critics, however, contend that Operation Streamline's expedited judicial process violates immigrants' right to a fair trial, which should include a rigorous defense.
"These people have no idea what is going on," Margo Cowan, a lawyer based in Pima County, told New Times. "They are brought directly from the desert, chained together at the feet, waist and hands. They talk to a lawyer for about five minutes. They're told to plead guilty. Then they're charged and sentenced all in the span of an hour."
Cowan spent last week in court defending 12 protesters facing charges for chaining themselves to two Operation Streamline buses in 2013 in an attempt to halt prosecutions in Tucson. Cowan and the defendants hope to use the trial to draw attention to the program's "heinous injustice", she said.
"I don't regret doing what I did," said Sarah Launius, an immigration activist who, with two other protesters, wrapped her arms around one of the bus tires to prevent authorities from transporting 70 suspected undocumented immigrants to court. "What I regret is the fact that 70 people are put through a kangaroo court every day."
Launius attributes the drop in illegal border crossings — not to Operation Streamline — but to the struggling U.S. economy. According Department of Homeland Security statistics, the flow of immigrants already had been on the decline five years before the program was initiated. Despite federal efforts to advertise its zero-tolerance policy, University of California, Berkeley researchers found, many immigrants rounded up by Operation Streamline did not understand what it meant to be charged with a felony in the United States or barred from reentry.
"The threat of criminal prosecution won't stop people from crossing the border illegally because there are stronger moral and social issues at play," said Launius, who is a member of the activist group No More Deaths. "These people are coming here to reunite with their families or find work to provide for their families."
Justice of the Peace Susan Bacal found Launius and her co-defendants not guilty of resisting arrest and dismissed four other charges, including criminal trespassing and obstructing government operations, March 17. She is expected to rule on charges of obstructing a highway and causing a public nuisance April 13.
"I have faith that the judge will do due diligence in reviewing my case," Launius said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case for those tried under Operation Streamline."
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