Grinding Justice

Operation Streamline costs millions, tramples the Constitution, treats migrants like cattle, doesn't work

Operation Streamline is a mega-expensive quagmire that fattens the U.S. Border Patrol's budget and enriches private corporations. It diverts resources from pursuing serious crimes, such as human smuggling and drug and gun trafficking.

Streamline's critics complain the program is arbitrary and inhumane, violating due-process and effective-use-of-counsel requirements of the U.S. Constitution's Fifth and 14th Amendments, as well as a Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.

Anti-migrant zealots want every apprehended undocumented alien processed and removed through Streamline's en masse court proceedings. It's estimated this would cost a billion dollars per year in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector alone.

Brian Stauffer
A bus for private prisons giant Corrections Corporation of America picks up migrants sentenced to time in custody by a Tuscon magistrate
Stephen Lemons
A bus for private prisons giant Corrections Corporation of America picks up migrants sentenced to time in custody by a Tuscon magistrate


In the border town of Nogales, Sonora, where buses drop off the newly deported every few hours on the American side, almost everyone seems to have been through Operation Streamline, a Border Patrol program that aims to hit all migrants entering the United States illegally with a criminal conviction.

There's the street peddler, Gary, selling multicolored balloons and pinwheels to those in cars lining up to cross into Arizona at the main port of entry. He was on his way to San Francisco when he was caught near Sasabe and put through Streamline's wringer.

"It was a bad experience," he says (all the Streamline defendants interviewed in this story spoke Spanish). He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of entering the United States without permission, a conviction the Border Patrol believes operates as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

But Gary is determined to cross again. The conviction will not dissuade him, he vows.

Near where Gary's plying his trade, a line of men and women file through a gated passageway into Mexico, after stepping off one of the many buses that deliver deported migrants every couple of hours to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most of the new deportees passing by describe having been shackled hand and foot for the Streamline court in Tucson. Many have spent 30 days or more at a facility in Florence that's run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison behemoth that jails Streamline convicts for the U.S. government.

A clean-cut young man named Luis was apprehended in Arivaca, Arizona, on his way to Minneapolis to work as a roofer. He has an aunt up there, he says.

Would he try crossing again, even though he might get more time if caught?

"Yeah, I will," he promises. "I'm not a fucking criminal. I just want to work."

Several people say they felt as though they had no choice but to plead guilty during the Streamline proceedings that occur every weekday at 1:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Tucson. There, 70 people each day plead to misdemeanor illegal entry, or 18 USC 1325 of the federal code. Most receive time served. Others get up to six months in prison as part of a plea agreement with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, in which the more serious offense of illegal reentry, or 18 USC 1326, is dropped.

Champions of Operation Streamline argue the migrants get a sweet deal: either time served—usually the one to three days they've been in Border Patrol custody—or 30 to 180 days, far less than they'd receive if convicted on a reentry charge, a conviction on which is punishable by up to 20 years, depending on the circumstances of the individual.

Moreover, the Border Patrol maintains that Streamline, which began in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, and spread to nearly every jurisdiction on the southwest border, is a success. The agency points to dramatic declines in apprehensions where Streamline has been in place. The program is essentially unnecessary, as an immigrant's removal through the civil administrative process already bars him or her from legal reentry for five years.

But Streamline's intended deterrent effect on illegal migration is not borne out by the Border Patrol's own apprehension numbers.

At a Nogales station for Grupos Beta, a Mexican aid agency that assists migrants when they come back across the border, the newly deported linger. The station sits next to a cemetery pockmarked with recent bullet holes.

Jose was on his way to Texas when he was nabbed by the Border Patrol near Sasabe, he says. He served 55 days in a CCA facility. He says his lawyer told him to plead "culpable," or guilty. The time he served won't stop him from crossing again, he says. He has a wife and children in Texas. He must go back.

Both Elena, 31, and Emma, 42, plan to return, too. Both women have family in the United States.

Elena did a month in CCA after going through Streamline. She was on her way to Salinas when she was apprehended. Her husband and two daughters, 10 and 2 1/2, live there. Elena says she made money there by working in the fields, picking broccoli and lettuce. She hasn't seen her family in five months.

Before her Streamline hearing, Elena was exhausted and hadn't been afforded a shower. She says she'd only been given cookies and juice to eat by the Border Patrol.

Emma describes the Border Patrol's throwing her cookies on the ground in front of her instead of handing them to her. In court, the handcuffs hurt her wrists. She thought she had no option but to plead guilty. She got time served before getting bused to Nogales.

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