Grinding Justice

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

"It creates a huge, huge security risk to have them unrestrained," says Assistant Chief Deputy Marshal Ray Kondo, head of security for the Tucson court. "The only time they're not [restrained] is in a trial because it would be prejudicial in front of a jury."

Yet it is unnerving to see 70 Latinos—whose main crime is often wanting to come here to work—shuffling about in restraints befitting a serial killer.

Williams can recall more disturbing scenes, such as Streamline cases in which defendants had been in rollover accidents before they were apprehended. Some were paralyzed, and arrangements were made for their initial appearances to occur from their hospital beds, she says.

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

"We've actually had instances in which Border Patrol has shot somebody," she says, "and the person has been brought into court a day or so later, fresh from the hospital, having had surgery and having been totally out of it."

There are also concerns about clients having TB, MRSA, bacterial meningitis and H1N1. But because they are in custody for such a short period, they often cannot be tested, isolated or diagnosed. Williams says her office sometimes learns that the courtroom may have been exposed to disease after the fact.

More worrisome for constitutional sticklers such as Murphy is that by condoning Streamline's mass hearings, the criminal-justice system is creating a dangerous precedent.

"There's the canary-in-the-coal-mine scenario," says Murphy. "The line between immigrants and citizens [becomes] much more porous."

At least one Streamline defense attorney offers a cynical appraisal of due-process concerns. Dan Anderson, who reps Streamline clients in Tucson a couple of days per week, calls the due-process standard in Streamline "your cheeseburger, no-frills, American due process."

Regarding Streamline's critics, he offers a jaundiced appraisal, noting it's not just Streamline defendants who have due-process issues.

"I understand the hue and cry about due process," Anderson says. "But as far as I can tell, those same voices are deafeningly silent when some homeless vet pleads guilty without the advice of counsel and gets 30 days in jail for sleeping in a public park or [urinating] on a dumpster behind the Circle K."

Beyond the constitutional and humanitarian concerns voiced by Streamline's opponents, the program's cost and inefficiency call the effort into serious question.

Streamline itself does not have a budget. Instead, it pulls from the resources of the various agencies involved—U.S. Attorneys, marshals and federal public-defenders offices; Border Patrol; and the federal judiciary.

Putting a price tag on Streamline is difficult, so much so that even its most enthusiastic cheerleaders have no idea of the program's overall cost.

However, there are estimates of specific costs associated with Streamline in Tucson.

In a report published by UC Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity, titled "Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline," researcher Joanna Lydgate estimated it costs DHS $52.5 million annually to detain Streamline defendants in Tucson, at a rate of $100 per person per day.

Lydgate was asked by congressional staffers to estimate the cost of fully funding Streamline in Tucson, if the program were to be zero-tolerance and hit every border crosser apprehended with a criminal charge. She and other Warren Institute researchers suggested $1 billion per year.

This may not be far from the mark. Chief Judge Roll estimates that doubling the number of Streamline defendants in Tucson could cost $18 million more per year. That would be in addition to the $5 million per year Tucson's Streamline court now costs, according to Roll's estimate.

Tripling the number of Tucson defendants in Streamline could cost $27 million more. These are court costs alone, says Roll, and do not include "marshal or prosecutorial expenses."

But tripling Streamline's defendants would get the Border Patrol nowhere near zero tolerance. That would require an average of 1,000 prosecutions per weekday in Tucson.

Federal public defender Williams estimates that for fiscal year 2010, the cost of attorney fees—including those of both public defenders and outside attorneys—will top $3.6 million. If the court began processing twice as many defendants each day as has been proposed, she says, the bill would rise to $6.3 million per year.

U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales says he writes a $13 million check each month to CCA for the incarceration of federal prisoners in Arizona. Gonzales says about 75 percent of this covers the cost of prisoners with immigration-related offenses, like those in Streamline.

In August, President Barack Obama signed a $600 million supplemental border-security package, from which many of the stakeholders in Streamline received a chunk, from $254 million for Customs and Border Protection to $196 million for the Department of Justice.

Presumably, some of the additional money would assist in the prosecution of Streamline cases. But when Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) sought an additional $200 million for Streamline during Senate debate over the bill, New York Democrat Charles Schumer shot it down.

"Operation Streamline is, first, expensive," Schumer told his colleague. "And if you're going to immediately incarcerate everyone who's apprehended at the border, you pay for their health care, you pay for their food. It's over $100 a day [per person to jail them]."

Nevertheless, McCain and Arizona's junior senator, Jon Kyl, have made fully funding Streamline point No. 2 in their 10-point "Border Security Action Plan." McCain and Kyl bring up Streamline every chance they get—during U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's confirmation hearing, for instance, and during Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke's appearances before Senate committees.

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