Grinding Justice: Operation Streamline Costs Millions, Tramples the Constitution, Treats Migrants Like Cattle, and Doesn't Work

In the border town of Nogales, Sonora, where buses drop off the newly deported every few hours on the American side, almost everyone seems to have been through Operation Streamline, a U.S. Border Patrol program that aims to hit all migrants entering the United States illegally with a criminal conviction.

There's the street peddler, Gary, selling multicolored balloons and pinwheels to the cars lining up to cross into Arizona at the main port of entry. He was on his way to San Francisco when he was caught near Sasabe and put through Streamline's wringer.

"It was a bad experience," he says (all the Streamline defendants interviewed in this story spoke Spanish). He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of entering the United States without permission, a conviction the Border Patrol believes operates as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

But Gary is determined to cross again. The conviction will not dissuade him, he vows.

Near where Gary's plying his trade, a line of men and women file through a gated passageway into Mexico, after stepping off one of the many buses that deliver deported migrants every couple of hours to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most of the new deportees passing by describe having been shackled hand and foot for the Streamline court in Tucson. Many have just spent 30 days or more at a facility in Florence, one run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison behemoth that jails Streamline convicts for the U.S. goverment.

One clean-cut young man named Luis stops for a moment. He was apprehended in Arivaca, Arizona, on his way to Minneapolis to work as a roofer. He has an aunt up there, he says.

Would he try crossing again, even though he might get more time if caught?

"Yeah, I will," he promises, before moving on with the rest. "I'm not a fucking criminal. I just want to work."

Several people say they felt as though they had no choice but to plead guilty during the Streamline proceedings that occur every weekday at 1:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Tucson. There, 70 people a day plead to misdemeanor illegal entry, or 8 U.S.C. 1325 of the federal code. Most receive time served. Others get up to six months in prison as part of a plea agreement with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, in which the more serious offense of illegal reentry, or 8 U.S.C. 1326, is dropped.

Champions of Operation Streamline argue that the migrants get a sweet deal: either time served — usually the one to three days they've been in Border Patrol custody — or 30 to 180 days, far less than they'd receive if convicted on a reentry charge. A conviction on 1326 is punishable by up to two, 10, or 20 years, depending on the circumstances of the individual.

Moreover, the Border Patrol maintains that Streamline, which began in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, and spread to nearly every jurisdiction on the southwest border, is a success. The agency points to dramatic declines in apprehensions where Streamline has been in place.

But Streamline's intended deterrent effect on illegal migration is not borne out by the Border Patrol's own apprehension numbers. The program is a mega-million-dollar boondoggle that fattens the Border Patrol's budget and enriches private corporations. It diverts resources from pursuing more serious crimes, such as human smuggling and drug and gun trafficking.

Also, Streamline's many critics complain that the program is arbitrary and inhumane, violating the due-process requirements of the U.S. Constitution's Fifth and 14th Amendments, as well as a Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. All for a program that is essentially unnecessary, as an immigrant's removal through the civil administrative process already bars him or her from legal reentry for five years.

At a Nogales station for Grupos Beta, a Mexican aid agency that assists migrants when they come back across the border, the newly deported linger. The station sits next to a cemetery pockmarked with recent bullet holes.

A man named Jose says he was on his way to Texas when he was nabbed by the Border Patrol near Sasabe.

Jose did 55 days in a CCA facility, he says. He says his lawyer told him to plead culpable, or guilty. The 55 days he served won't stop him from crossing again. He has a wife and children in Texas. He must go back.

Both Elena, 31, and Emma, 42, plan to return, too, eventually. Both women have family in the United States.

Elena did a month in CCA after going through Streamline. She was on her way to Salinas, California, when she was apprehended. Her husband and two daughters, 10 and 2 ½ years old, live there. Elena says she made money there by working in the fields, picking broccoli and lettuce. She hasn't seen her family in five months.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons