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Assembly-Line Justice

January 21, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Border Federal Judicial Districts

This guest post was written by Joanna Lydgate, William K. Coblentz Civil Rights Fellow with the Warren Institute in Berkeley, California.

Most Americans have never heard of Operation Streamline, a Bush-era immigration enforcement initiative that began in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005 and has since been expanded across most of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The program requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of every single person who crosses the border unlawfully.  (Before Operation Streamline began, most unlawful border crossers were processed in the civil immigration system.)

The vast majority of immigrants prosecuted through Operation Streamline have no prior criminal record and have come to the U.S. in search of work or to reunite with family.  Operation Streamline has caused skyrocketing caseloads in the federal district courts along the border and has put an immense strain on local resources.  Between 2002 and 2008, federal magistrate judges along the southwest border saw their misdemeanor immigration caseloads more than quadruple. 

As a fellow with the Warren Institute -- a research and policy institute at the University of California Berkeley School of Law -- I spent the past year examining Operation Streamline.  I traveled to four border cities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to see the program in action.  In each city, I watched groups of as many as 70 or 80 immigrants appear before a judge at once, sometimes with just one attorney representing the entire group.  I also interviewed judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and Border Patrol representatives about the program.  I learned through my research that this program is not nearly as popular on the ground as it is with some lawmakers in Washington, DC.  More than one judge I interviewed described Operation Streamline as "assembly-line justice." 

Last week, my research was released in the Warren Institute's report, "Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline," which concludes that Operation Streamline violates the U.S. Constitution, diverts resources from fighting border violence, and fails to reduce undocumented immigration.  By requiring U.S. attorneys to spend their time prosecuting all unlawful border crossers, Operation Streamline has led to a reduction in the prosecution of more serious crimes along the border, such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.

Operation Streamline’s volume of prosecutions have also forced many courts to cut procedural corners.  Judges conduct en masse hearings, during which as many as 80 defendants plead guilty at a time, depriving migrants of due process.  Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that these en masse plea hearings in Tucson, Arizona violate federal law. 

While Operation Streamline’s proponents point to a recent decline in border apprehensions to argue that the program reduces undocumented immigration, there is no proof that Operation Streamline has caused that decline.  Apprehension rates have always tended to rise and fall in sync with the economy, and the most recent decline is likely due to the U.S. recession, which has greatly diminished job prospects for immigrant workers.

The report recommends that the Obama administration replace Operation Streamline with a comprehensive and effective approach to border enforcement.  Among other things, the administration should return to the longstanding practice of channeling unlawful border crossers through the civil immigration system.  That allows the Department of Homeland Security to deport first-time entrants without draining the resources of the district courts, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Public Defender, or the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Obama administration says it is committed to targeting the criminal enterprises responsible for rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Operation Streamline is tying up our law enforcement resources by prosecuting thousands of immigrants whose greatest crime is seeking a job.

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