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In 2013, several protesters locked themselves to the wheels of a deportation bus to protest Operation Streamline. (Photo: ndlon/Chandra Narcia/flickr/cc)

End 'Operation Streamline': How One Human Rights Disaster is Driving Several More

'The mass criminalization, prosecution, and incarceration of migrants is a human rights disaster—a ineffective, wasteful policy that has failed by every measure.'

Deirdre Fulton

The 10-year-old, controversial "Operation Streamline," through which immigrants who cross the border are targeted for criminal prosecution, is wasting taxpayer dollars, tearing apart families, and driving mass incarceration, according to a new report. 

The analysis from nonprofit groups Justice Strategies and Grassroots Leadership, released Wednesday in the form of a book (pdf), is based on interviews with judges, public defenders, advocates, activists, former prosecutors, and individuals who have been prosecuted as well as their families. "It was clear from talking to actors throughout this system that it is broken in every way," the report reads

The San Antonio Express-News explains:

Before its launch, most immigration cases were handled within the civil immigration system. Under Streamline, however, court sessions are collapsed so that large groups of up to 80 immigrants can be convicted and sentenced for improper entry, a misdemeanor, or illegal re-entry, a felony prosecution, all at one time.

According to Grassroots Leadership, the report's key findings include:

  1. Since 2005, nearly three-quarters of a million people have been prosecuted in our federal courts for the crime of improper migration: 412,240 for improper entry and 317,916 for re-entry. This escalating system of migrant prosecutions is making a significant and growing contribution to mass incarceration, and to overcrowding in our federal prison system.
  2. We conservatively estimate that just the costs entailed by the jail and prison terms that result from criminal prosecutions for improper entry and re-entry total at least $7 billion since a large share of this tax burden produces increased profits for the country's leading private prison corporations.
  3. Economic circumstances and family responsibilities overwhelmingly drive improper migration, and there is no convincing evidence that incarceration is a deterrent for people facing these pressures. The resulting human costs to those prosecuted, their families and communities are incalculable.
  4. The system is not seen as effective by most of the judges and lawyers that participate in the process day in and day out. They say that Operation Streamline and the related felony prosecutions are driven by politics, not by good policy.

"Expanded migrant prosecutions have become the newest contributor to mass incarceration and the sentenced migrants are straining an already massively overcrowded federal prison system," said Judith Greene, report author and director of Justice Strategies. "The mass criminalization, prosecution, and incarceration of migrants is a human rights disaster—a ineffective, wasteful policy that has failed by every measure."

Or, as retired judge Felix Recio, who served as a federal magistrate from 1999-2013 in Brownsville, Texas—across the border from Matamoros, Mexico—said in a press statement (pdf): "The only thing we have done is destroyed the lives of many people whose only crime is a desire to exercise their human rights to feed and care for themselves and their families."

In fact, Recio says in the report, "I don't know what these prosecutions have accomplished other than serving as a rationale for the growth of the government agencies."

Plus, as the Guardian notes of the nearly 750,000 people who have been prosecuted in federal courts under Streamline, "[t]heir criminal records will likely make them ineligible for any legal path to citizenship."

What's more, the Guardian adds: "Almost as if to underscore the initiative's failure, felony re-entry cases now outnumber those for first time crossers in many federal court districts along the U.S.-Mexico border."

The groups say the power to end the failed operation lies with the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Attorneys in the border districts.

"Just as the Department of Justice has begun to remedy the failed war on drugs, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the U.S. Attorneys of federal court districts at the southern border must take steps to end the inhumane and wasteful mass prosecution and incarceration of migrants," said Bethany Carson, report author and Grassroots Leadership immigration organizer and researcher.

"The movement to end mass incarceration must not leave migrants behind," she declared.


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