A controversial program aimed at curbing illegal immigration, known as Operation Streamline, has grown during the Obama administration and may yet triple in size.
Operation Streamline began in 2005 under President George W. Bush but has become a central piece of President Barack Obama’s effort to stem the flow of illegal immigration coming across the southern border. Deportations under the Obama administration reached 1.9 million in December, a record for any American president.
The program is essentially a fast-paced arrest, charge, try and convict system. Judges in Tucson, Ariz., convict 70 men and women per day in rapid succession.
“My record is 30 minutes,” said Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco of Federal District Court.
The accused are offered a plea deal. Many are repeat offenders. The deal: Plead guilty to illegal entry, a misdemeanor, or face trial for illegal re-entry. The latter is a felony that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison. Almost always, after a 30-minute meeting with a lawyer, the accused take the deal and serve about six months behind bars before being deported. The convicted men and women are housed in federal prisons, county jails, and private facilities that have contracts with the government.
Many feel that the program’s fast pace denies the defendants the opportunity to plead their cases or mount proper defenses.
“The whole thing is basically about meeting the minimum requirements so as not to violate your rights,” said Saúl M. Huerta, a lawyer hired by the government at $110 per hour to represent defendants.
“As ugly as some people think it is, it’s a bargain for the defendants,” Judge Velasco said. “What we do is constitutional, it satisfies due process. It may not look good, but it does everything the law requires.”
The program has met harsh criticism in the Latino community and sparked angry protests. Last year, in Tucson, one protest delayed a bus carrying defendants to court. The bus was too late in arriving for the defendants to meet with attorneys. They were then taken back across the border and released without trial.
The efficacy of Operation Streamline remains in question by many. However, numbers from last year’s analysis by the Congressional Research Service show a two percent drop in recidivism among migrants who had been convicted and then deported under the program. Politicians seem encouraged by such numbers and a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in June tripled Operation Streamline’s budget. Immigration overhaul is currently stalled in the House of Representatives.