Operation Streamline: Unproven Benefits Outweighed by Cost to Taxpayers
September 12, 2012
Federal courts today face a staggering caseload that results not from rising crime or increased prosecutions of drug offenders. Rather, the increased case load results from a steep rise in immigration-related prosecutions. The number of prosecutions for immigration-related offenses is 50% higher today than five years ago, despite unauthorized border crossings being at their lowest level since 1971.[i]
Immigration prosecution policies, such as “Operation Streamline,” have inundated the justice system and devoured precious judicial resources. These policies and the lack of transparency surrounding them raise questions about the cost of such operations, their lack of due process, and their impact on other crucial law enforcement and judicial needs. Further, there are already a number of processes in our civil immigration system to deal with individuals who violate our immigration laws.
Programs that address our immigration challenges through a criminal justice approach, like Operation Streamline, create much more of a problem than that which they purport to solve. Our government’s current fiscal shortfalls and its unprecedented control of our borders provide impetus to end wasteful and unnecessary programs like Operation Streamline.
What is “Operation Streamline”?
Operation Streamline is a program with roots in both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Under Operation Streamline, federal criminal charges are brought against individuals apprehended crossing the border illegally. Migrants apprehended in specific Operation Streamline enforcement zones are targeted for immediate prosecution for illegal entry or illegal reentry regardless of their individual circumstances.[ii] In other words, it is a “zero tolerance” border enforcement program. Indeed, Operation Streamline’s application entails stripping prosecutorial discretion from federal prosecutors by requiring the criminal prosecution of all undocumented border crossers. Those caught making a first illegal entry are prosecuted for a misdemeanor (under 8 U.S.C. § 1325) punishable by up to 6 months in prison, and those who reenter after deportation may be prosecuted for a felony (under 8 U.S.C. § 1326) punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Operation Streamline is also known as a fast-track program; a federal criminal case with prison and deportation consequences is resolved in 2 days or less.[iii] According to a 2009 DHS Customs and Border Protection (CBP) report, the average prison sentence for illegal entrants who had no prior criminal record was between 15 and 90 days.[iv]
Operation Streamline initially launched in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005 under the Bush Administration. Today, Operation Streamline is in effect in several ‘sectors’ along the Southwestern border: Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Yuma in Arizona. A ‘spin-off’ version of the program known as the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative is in effect in the Tucson sector.[v] The Arizona variant “assures that each defendant prosecuted faces a sentence of up to 180 days in jail, a formal removal and a ban on legal reentry to the United States for five years.”[vi] Indeed, Operation Streamline varies across sectors with some, but not all, sectors prosecuting one-hundred percent of border crossers apprehended.[vii]
Before Operation Streamline, agents with CBP’s Border Patrol agency routinely returned first-time undocumented border crossers to their home countries or referred them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to face removal charges in the civil immigration system. Both CBP and ICE are components of DHS. Meanwhile, local U.S. Attorneys with the Department of Justice typically prosecuted only those migrants with criminal records or those who made repeated attempts to unlawfully cross the border.[viii]
What are the Concerns with Operation Streamline?
Operation Streamline is enormously expensive, diverts scarce resources from core law enforcement priorities and community safety, and strains U.S. courts and prisons, particularly in the Southwest. Federal judges, prosecutors, and defenders report that the explosion in immigration prosecutions siphons resources from other criminal prosecutions.[ix] The program is also redundant because it criminally prosecutes individuals who have already been apprehended and processed by our immigration enforcement officers, thus requiring the criminal justice system to prosecute and incarcerate individuals who would otherwise be channeled through immigration removal procedures. Operation Streamline’s steep cost and questionable contribution to public safety, especially at a time when unlawful attempts to cross our borders are at historic lows, call into question the program’s utility and value.
1. Financial Costs
The direct costs of Operation Streamline are staggering and include incarceration expenses, operating expenses for the courts, and the price of prosecution and defense attorneys.
- DOJ has estimated that incarceration costs alone for those convicted under Operation Streamline are between $7 million and $10 million each month.[x] In 2010, eighty-one percent of immigration defendants who were convicted in federal courts, the vast majority of whom faced illegal entry or reentry charges, received a prison sentence.[xi]
- In Arizona, detention costs for Operation Streamline defendants in 2009 were estimated at $40 million.[xii] In Arizona, Operation Streamline’s court costs were estimated to be as high as $10 million per month.[xiii] Federal public defender Heather Williams estimates that another $3.6 million per month is spent on defense lawyers in Arizona, primarily court-appointed private attorneys.[xiv] The cost to prosecute defendants in Operation Streamline averages $10,000 a day and $50,000 a week in Tucson alone.[xv]
- In Texas, incarceration costs for Operation Streamline defendants are estimated to be $320 million per year, amounting to well over $1 billion since the program started in 2005.[xvi]
Operation Streamline has also put financial strain directly on DOJ, as it has led to a significant increase in its operations. Specifically, from 2006 to 2009 the number of immigration-related cases disposed of by U.S. magistrate judges nearly doubled from 31,196 to 55,604.[xvii] Individuals booked for federal criminal immigration offenses by the U.S. Marshals Service, which is a part of DOJ, rose exponentially from 8,777 in 1994 to 82,438 in 2010.[xviii] Apparently to acknowledge the growing Operation Streamline-related costs, DOJ in its 2010 budget request sought a $231.6 million increase for its Southwest border operations, noting its need for a substantial increase in attorneys and agents.[xix]
2. Crime-fighting Costs
There is also a cost that comes from shifting prosecutorial resources away from threats to public safety. Rather than spending time prosecuting serious crimes, including gun and drug trafficking and organized criminal activity, federal lawyers and courts now spend much of their time on illegal entry or reentry cases.[xx]
As immigration prosecution rates have risen in federal courts, prosecution of other criminal matters has declined significantly, as shown in the graph below. While immigration prosecutions were skyrocketing between 2003 and 2010, murder prosecutions fell sixty-two percent, embezzlement prosecutions shrank by thirty-five percent, drug possession prosecutions declined by twenty-four percent, bribery prosecutions fell by twenty-three percent, and weapon offense prosecutions dropped by twenty percent.[xxi]
Decline in Selected Federal Criminal Prosecution in Selected Felony Types, 2003-2010[xxii]
|Filing offense||2003||2010||Changes between 2003 and 2010|
|Other drug felonies||2,136||72||-2064|
|Traffic offenses – misdemeanor||5,045||4,353||-692|
|Larceny – felony||1,855||1,224||-631|
|Drug possession – misdemeanor||2,229||1,692||-537|
 A U.S. magistrate judge is appointed and supervised by federal judges in the U.S. district court where they serve for eight years. The duties of a magistrate judge include handling preliminary matters in felony immigration matters and disposing of persons charged with entering without inspection, the least serious immigration offense.
[i] Mark Motivans, “Immigration Offenders in the U.S. Justice System, 2010,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2012, available at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/iofjs10.pdf.
[ii] CBP News Releases, “Operation Streamline Nets 1,200-Plus Prosecutions in Arizona,” July 24, 2007, available at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/2007_news_releases/072007/07242007_3.xml.
[iii] Amended Written Statement of Heather E. Williams, First Assistant Federal Public Defender, District of Arizona – Tucson, June 25, 2008, Before the United States House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law, Oversight Hearing on the “Executive Office for United States Attorneys,” available at http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/pdf/Williams080625.pdf, at 4.
[iv] U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Performance and Accountability Report: Fiscal Year 2009, available at http://www.cbp.gov/linkhandler/cgov/newsroom/publications/admin/perform_rpt_2009.ctt/perform_rpt_2009.pdf at 12-13.
[v] Tara Buentello et al, “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars Along the Rio Grande,” Grassroots Leadership, July 2010, available at http://grassrootsleadership.org/OperationStreamline/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Operation-Streamline-Green-Paper.pdf.
[vi] CBP News Releases, “CBP Border Patrol Announces Fiscal Year 2008 Achievements for the Tucson Sector,” October 15, 2008 available at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/2008_news_releases/2008_fiscal/10152008_3.xml.
[vii] Joanna Lydgate, “Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline,” Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity, UC Berkeley Law School, Jan. 2010, available at
[viii] Joanna Lydgate, “Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline,” Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity, UC Berkeley Law School, Jan. 2010, available at
[ix] Joanna Lydgate, “Operation Streamline: Border Enforcement That Doesn’t Work,” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2010, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/14/opinion/la-oe-lydgate-immigration-20100514.
[x] Evan Pellegrino, “Factory justice? Illegal immigrants pushed through the system” Green Valley News, Apr. 20, 2010.
[xi] Mark Motivans, “Immigration Offenders in the U.S. Justice System, 2010,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2012, available at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/iofjs10.pdf.
[xii] Lauren Gambino, “Program Prosecutes Illegal Immigrants Before Deporting Them,” Arizona State Univ. News21, available at http://asu.news21.com/2010/prosecuting-illegal-immigrants.
[xiii] Blumenthal, M. (2010, February 15). “’We’re all parasites.’ This is Operation Streamline,” Max Blumenthal, retrieved from http://maxblumenthal.com/2010/02/were-all-parasites-this-is-operation-streamline/.
[xiv] Id at 12.
[xv] “A Maddening System, From the Courtrooms to Shelters”, Tom Roberts, National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2011, available at http://ncronline.org/news/immigration-and-church/maddening-system-courtrooms-shelters.
[xvi] Tara Buentello et al, “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars Along the Rio Grande,” Grassroots Leadership, July 2010. See endnote 5.
[xvii] Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2012; See endnote 11.
[xviii] Id. at endnote 11.
[xix] DOJ News Release, “Department of Justice FY 2010 Budget Request” May 7, 2009, available at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2009/May/09-ag-451.html
[xx] See explanation and additional information on federal prosecutions on page 5 of this paper.
[xxi] Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2012; See endnote 11.