Frontera Fund News

The 5 Most Shocking Revelations about Operation Streamline

CBP Border Patrol agent does a pat down of a Mexican being returned to Mexico.
Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A new book about Operation Streamline – the notorious program that prosecutes up to 80 undocumented border crossers simultaneously – has just been released, 10 years after the initiative was launched.  

Indefensible: A Decade of Mass Incarceration of Migrants Prosecuted for Crossing the Border features interviews with judges, lawyers and immigrants involved in the fast-track proceedings in Texas, Arizona and California.

Here are five of the most surprising reveals:

1. The number of migrants prosecuted is staggering. In 2015 alone, Operation Streamline prosecuted nearly 70,000 individuals – an average of 190 people per day. Since 2005, approximately 730,150 immigrants have been prosecuted for improper migration: 412,240 for illegal entry and 317,916 for re-entry.

2. An estimated 99 percent of defendants plead guilty, without getting a proper trial. They are charged, accept their plea agreement, and are sentenced in a matter of hours.

“At sentencing, more than one judge has said, ‘All of your clients are the same, have the same reasons for being here. I don’t need to hear it,’” says Donna Coltharp, deputy federal public defender in Texas’ Western District, in an interview in the book.

“I ask each person individually if they want to say something,” explains Tucson Judge Charles R. Pyle. “But we’ve brought them to the courthouse at 3 a.m., tired and frightened. We’ve held them in a court pen with nothing to eat but granola bars. So almost always no one wants to say anything. If one person does say something, however, 20 more will do so too, and I want to hear whatever they have to say.”

3. Sentences can be extreme. If the defendant is a first-time offender with no record, the judge will typically choose a sentence of a few weeks to six months. However, if the person has a significant criminal history or has committed a crime of violence, he or she can face a 16-level enhancement, producing sentences up to 10 years.

“The possible 16-level enhancement in the sentencing guidelines for 1326 cases (improper re-entry) has no parallel in any other criminal offense,” says Chloe Dillon, a federal public defender in San Diego. “It is a super crazy enhancement for 1326 and has a massive effect on sentencing.”

4. It’s exorbitantly expensive. The book’s authors estimate it has cost the U.S. more than $7 billion to incarcerate undocumented immigrants since 2005, when Operation Streamline began.

“It costs $30,000 per year to incarcerate someone,” says Tucson public defender Deirdre Mokos. “What is the point of that?… Many people are prosecuted because they have prior drug convictions. They are not dangerous.”

5. “The system is not seen as effective by most of the judges and lawyers that participate in the process day in and day out,” according to the book.

“These prosecutions have no deterrent effect whatsoever,” asserts Judge Felix Recio, a retired magistrate judge in Brownsville, Texas. “Maybe [tough policies] give people in the U.S. a sense of order, but they have no real impact. People are still coming every single day. I don’t know what these prosecutions have accomplished other than serving as a rationale for the growth of the government agencies.”

The authors of the book, from Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies, recommend instead that the Attorney General and attorneys in border states de-prioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions and devote their resources to crimes that threaten public safety.

Further, the authors urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reject any proposed amendments to increase sentences for improper entry and re-entry, plus remedy already exorbitant sentences.