From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. And for the next two weeks, we're welcoming David Greene into the host seat, fresh from (unintelligible). David, welcome.


Thank you, Melissa. I really appreciate it. It's good to be here.

BLOCK: And we're going to begin this hour with the story of mass justice on a massive scale. The Border Patrol's Operation Streamline program is trying, convicting and sentencing hundreds of illegal immigrants a day - many in just a matter of hours.

Today on MORNING EDITION we heard how the system pushes the boundaries of due process and how appeals courts have demanded that it slow down, take more time with defendants. Now we're going to explore whether the program actually works.

GREENE: The Border Patrol says there are actually three measures proving that Streamline is a success. First, it says that few of those convicted try to cross the border again. Second, the government points to a decrease in the total number of people being apprehended while they're crossing illegally. And, third, the government says Operation Streamline has allowed it to concentrate on more serious crimes. We'll check in on all of those claims, beginning with the first - that the streamline is a deterrent to illegal immigration.

Here is NPR's Ted Robbins.


TED ROBBINS: We weren't given access to Operation Streamline prisoners while they were in custody. So we came here to the Centro para Atencion a los Migrantes Deportados. It's a religious-run charity in Nogales, Sonora, which feeds people who've been recently deported. The men and a few women sit on benches in the covered open-air building. After a blessing, they eat their dinner.


ROBBINS: It's a good place to test the Border Patrol's claim that Operation Streamline acts as a deterrent, stopping people from crossing again.

Over two days, we asked 96 people here a series of questions. Few had heard the term Operation Streamline but 35 of the 96 said they had appeared before a judge and been convicted.

How many of you who went to court intend to cross again sometime, anytime?

Thirty of the 35 say they'll cross again. That's 85 percent - a lot higher than the 20 percent recidivism rate the government uses. So the claim doesn't hold up, at least in this group. Only one man says he won't cross again because he fears a longer jail sentence. Most are like Filiberto Robledo-Aguilar. He traveled thousands of miles north from Chiapas before crossing in the desert and getting caught. He says he needs to get back into the U.S. because his family needs money. And he says he has to do it illegally because he can't get a work permit to pick fruits and vegetables.

FILIBERTO ROBLEDO: (Through translator) I don't want to stay, I just want to go to the U.S. and earn some money and come back to Mexico because all my family is here.

ROBBINS: Regardless of what these men say they'll do, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler says the program works as part of the government's larger border security plan.

MATT CHANDLER: Along with our other efforts, Operation Streamline has shown its effectiveness and continues to be a valuable tool in decreasing the number of individuals attempting to illegally enter the United States.

ROBBINS: Marc Miller doesn't buy that argument. Miller is a law professor at the University of Arizona, specializing in criminal procedure and sentencing. He says there's no way a misdemeanor conviction will deter significant numbers of people from crossing.

MARC MILLER: If dying in the desert is not a deterrent, it's hard to imagine why spending no or little time in federal prison and being returned to your home country is a deterrent.

ROBBINS: Miller doesn't even think giving Streamline defendants the maximum sentence would matter.

MILLER: I don't think six months would make a difference here, either. The drivers of immigration are economics, not sanctions.

ROBBINS: Historically, illegal immigration rises when more jobs are available. That fact challenges the government's second measure of Operation Streamline's success: that apprehensions along the border are way down because of the program. Not only is there a recession keeping people away, but over the same time Streamline has been implemented, the government has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, built nearly 700 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers, and added detection devices such as cameras and sensors.

Dean Sinclair is the deputy Border Patrol chief in the Del Rio, Texas sector where Operation Streamline began. He admits lots of things have caused the drop in apprehensions.

DEAN SINCLAIR: Streamline is but one operation. We have numerous other strong enforcement deterrence operations.

ROBBINS: So let's examine the third and final reason the Border Patrol labels Operation Streamline a success. That it allows agents to pursue more drug dealers and violent criminals.

SINCLAIR: It's freed us up to be able to actually concentrate on the more serious threats to this country. And that's the success of Streamline.

ROBBINS: Alia Ludlum has noticed a difference in the years since Operation Streamline began. Ludlum is presiding judge of the federal court in Del Rio and has been a part of the program since the beginning.

ALIA LUDLUM: You know, my drug cases, all of a sudden, the first year out of Streamline, my drug cases just shot through the roof. I'm seeing the weapons charges which I had not seen in years past. I'm seeing a lot of alien smuggling cases, which I had not seen in years past.

ROBBINS: But there's no clear pattern. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, presiding Judge Bob Brack says his drug and violent crime cases dropped after Streamline took effect.

BOB BRACK: Yes, a significant percentage drop. I mean, I'm talking 50, 60 percent. And that roughly corresponds to Operation Streamline.

ROBBINS: So Operation Streamline allowed one judge to hear more serious crime cases while another judge heard fewer. What's going on? Well, to get the broadest picture, we looked at all Streamline jurisdictions. We compared the years Streamline took effect in each place with 2009, the latest full year available. What we found was startling. Border wide, felony convictions not related to immigration - violent crime, white-collar crime - were down by about 10 percent.

There is one place where those convictions have gone up steadily year after year - in Southern California, the only border jurisdiction where Operation Streamline is not in effect. You can see the numbers for yourself online at NPR.org.

DHS wouldn't respond directly to our analysis. But spokesman Matt Chandler did reiterate the government's argument that aggressive prosecution under Operation Streamline has deterred illegal crossers and led to more drug seizures.

CHANDLER: Streamline frees up our officers and agents at the border to focus on interdicting transnational criminal operations who are attempting to smuggle illicit goods across the southwest border.

ROBBINS: Law professor Marc Miller argues that the Border Patrol may be freed up, but the mass prosecutions are creating the opposite effect on the justice system by tying up the courts.

MILLER: Are there public safety effects to making these the priorities over bank robbery, over white collar, over fraud? Absolutely.

ROBBINS: Even while Border Patrol agents on the beat and DHS officials in Washington proclaim Operation Streamline's success, they admit they can't measure that success separately from other programs. Yet, there are calls in Congress to expand Operation Streamline again. And as we'll see tomorrow, no one knows what that will cost.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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