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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A federal effort to deal with illegal immigrants is raising questions. Operation Streamline churns people through the court system. Sometimes they're convicted within hours.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

For all the concern that raises about due process, the Border Patrol loves the program. Officials say it frees up resources for more serious crimes, yet it turns out that nobody knows the cost of Operation Streamline.

INSKEEP: Not the Border Patrol...

WERTHEIMER: ...or the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: Nor the Department of Homeland Security.

WERTHEIMER: Not even the lawmakers who want to expand the program. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: It's a simple question, but no one involved with Operation Streamline can answer it. A spokesman for the Border Patrol says no budget or monies are associated with Streamline. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who's in charge of the Border Patrol, said this during a conference call:

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): It is a very expensive program per head because it does implicate use of the judicial system.

ROBBINS: So which is it? Nothing, or very expensive? Operation Streamline might not cost the Border Patrol anything extra, but the agency hands off its prisoners to the U.S. Marshals Service, part of the Department of Justice. The Justice Department and the federal courts have to provide transportation, housing, food, interpreters, defense attorneys, courtrooms, clerks and judges. How much does that cost?

Senator JOHN KYL (Republican, Arizona): We've been trying to find this out for a year and a half.

ROBBINS: Arizona Republican Senator John Kyl is a big supporter of Operation Streamline. He got Congress to order the administration to come up with a cost.

Senator KYL: And neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Department of Justice will tell us.

ROBBINS: In fact, the government is spending a million bucks on a study to find out how much Homeland Security operations impact the Justice Department. Even if they don't know how much Streamline costs, some members of Congress, like Jon Kyl, want to expand it.

Sen. KYL: We have to guess at it. Just say, OK, here. We'll give you $50 million. How much will that do?

ROBBINS: Kyl is mainly interested in expanding Operation Streamline in the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, where nearly half of all illegal immigrants crossing the border are caught. Right now, prisoners are brought to the Tucson federal courthouse by the busload. The courthouse was built to house up to 100 prisoners awaiting their court appearances. These days, that's the minimum.

Assistant Chief RAY KONDO (U.S. Marshal Service): Particularly in the mornings, sometimes we'll have as many as 200 prisoners in here.

ROBBINS: Assistant Chief U.S. Marshal Ray Kondo unlocks a door to a courtroom...

(Soundbite of door opening)

ROBBINS: ...which, every morning, becomes a makeshift jail. The courtroom is filled with small tables where lawyers sit across from their clients. Others meet in the pews normally reserved for spectators. The prisoners in the courtroom were picked-up under Operation Streamline. They were charged with entering the country illegally, a misdemeanor. They'll be arraigned, convicted, and sentenced in groups this afternoon. Every weekday, 70 people are processed this way, on top of all the court's other cases. The Border Patrol would like to increase that to 100. Others want to double or triple it. Ray Kondo has to figure out how.

Mr. KONDO: I've come up with one proposal where we'd actually have two separate Streamline proceedings - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - so that all 100 wouldn't be here all at one time.

ROBBINS: But even tripling the number of Operation Streamline defendants wouldn't come close to meeting the program's stated goal of zero tolerance: prosecuting everyone caught crossing illegally. In the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, that would currently be nearly 1,000 every weekday, a quarter-million people a year. The presiding federal judge for the state of Arizona, John Roll, says it's his job to carry out policy, not to make it. But he says prosecuting everyone is not possible.

Judge JOHN ROLL (Presiding Federal Judge, Arizona): You can't prosecute all 250,000 people in Arizona. We would have more cases than the rest of the entire country. You would take the resources now for the entire country and just double it and put them in Arizona.

ROBBINS: In other words, to prosecute these misdemeanors, Arizona would need to have a federal criminal justice system twice the size of the rest of the country. No one has contemplated what that would cost. But we did find one guess as to how much it would cost just to detain and hire a lawyer for every illegal immigrant caught entering the Tucson Sector: close to $1 billion a year for one border patrol sector. That estimate was done by the Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School. David Sklansky is a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at UC Berkeley.

Professor DAVID SKLANSKY (Law, UC Berkeley): We've now reached a point where immigration prosecutions are not just the largest category of federal criminal prosecutions. They are a majority of federal criminal prosecutions. And that doesn't strike me as a good use of our prosecutorial machinery.

ROBBINS: Either way, Operation Streamline is already a huge burden on federal courts along the border. And with no clear estimate of what it costs now, the government wants to expand it.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

INSKEEP: The rest of Ted's series is at npr.org.

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