Is Operation Streamline Worth Its Budget Being Tripled?

The Senate immigration bill calls for tripling a controversial federal court program called Operation Streamline. The program takes people caught crossing the border illegally, gives them prison sentences, then deports them. It's hugely expensive — but does it work?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's something buried in the 800-page immigration bill passed by the Senate in June, and now waiting action in the House. It's a provision to dramatically expand a program called Operation Streamline, which criminalizes border crossing. Operation Streamline is an extraordinarily swift federal court proceeding. Those caught crossing into the U.S. illegally meet with a lawyer, hear the charges against them, accept a plea, get sentenced by a judge and get deported - all in one day.

Three years ago, NPR's Ted Robbins looked at concerns over the process cost and effectiveness. He has this update.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CHATTER)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Twenty men and women arrive at the shelter San Juan Bosco in Nogales, Sonora. They eat, listen to advice from the Mexican consul and contemplate what's next, now that they've been deported from the U.S.

CARMELO MENDOZA: Regresar...

JUANA GONZALEZ: Regresar...

MENDOZA: Estados Unidos.

GONZALEZ: Estados Unidos.

ROBBINS: Return to the United States, say both husband and wife Juana Gonzalez and Carmelo Mendoza, even after being caught by the border patrol crossing the Arizona desert, shackled by their hands and feet, convicted of illegal entry and serving 30-day prison terms. That's because the couple lived in California for much of the last 14 years before returning to Mexico, to take care of sick parents.They have two daughters of their own in the U.S. That's why they want to return.

MENDOZA: (Spanish spoken)

ROBBINS: If you have children, you'll understand you'll do what it takes to be with them, says Carmelo Mendoza.

GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

ROBBINS: Imagine if an American child of yours was living in Mexico. Of course you'd go to Mexico to be with them, says Juana Gonzalez.

This is not what the U.S. government wants to hear. The whole premise behind Operation Streamline is that punishment deters people from re-entering. When the program began in Tucson, the majority of people were charged with first-time crossing. On a recent day I spent in federal court watching Operation Streamline, almost all of the defendants were charged with crossing twice, three times - even more. Jay Sagar is a federal public defender who has worked with Streamline defendants for five years.

JAY SAGAR: One of the main questions I get asked, when I'm interviewing the Streamline clients, is "how much will I get next time?" To me, that seems to indicate that their mind's already there.

ROBBINS: A University of Arizona study of 1,200 people returned to Mexico after serving Streamline sentences backs that up. Jeremy Slack co-authored the study.

JEREMY SLACK: For the long term, there's no statistically significant difference between someone that went through Operation Streamline and someone didn't.

ROBBINS: The federal government says Streamline is working. It points to an analysis of border patrol apprehension figures over the last two years, showing people convicted of charges are less likely to get caught crossing again. Regardless of how well it works, there's little chance it will stop. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake says Operation Streamline would be more effective if it were expanded.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: There - need to be more swift and sure consequences for those who enter illegally, and continue to enter illegally.

ROBBINS: The Senate's bipartisan immigration bill would triple the program's size in Tucson, from 70 to 210 prisoners a day. The bill authorizes $50 million for the expansion. A study by the Warren Institute, at U.C. Berkeley, put the cost at about $1 billion.

JUDGE RANER COLLINS: It would certainly put us in a bind.

ROBBINS: Raner Collins is presiding federal judge in Tucson.

COLLINS: We don't have a bigger courthouse now than we had five years ago, when we were able only to do 70; and that's what we currently do now, 70 a day.

ROBBINS: Operation Streamline already takes up more time and space than any other courthouse proceeding. Collins says tripling the program would mean hiring more magistrates, more lawyers, more marshals; and finding more space.

COLLINS: It would have to be something built in the parking lot. I'm not sure what that would be.

ROBBINS: Like many other immigration stories, here's where this one ends. Lawmakers can't decide on whether or how to reform the nation's broken immigration system, but they agree that enforcement programs must go on.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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