As an immigration attorney in southern Arizona, I see first-hand how busy the courts are with immigration-related matters. However, many people are unable to comprehend just how overloaded these courts are in Tucson and other cities throughout the state.
A recent article posted on msnbc.com, described the courtroom experience for many immigrants awaiting proceedings in Arizona. On most days, there are approximately 70 immigrants sitting together at the courthouse, “bound by shackles at their ankles and wrists,” waiting for their names to be called.
However, in these situations, the defendants will end up standing before the judge in groups of eight, rather than standing alone. The reason for this so-called expedited legal process is partly because of a program introduced in Tucson in 2008. Operation Streamline “added an extra layer of criminal convictions and jail time to deter people from ever trying to enter the U.S. again.” However, the new program has led to overcrowded courts and heavy caseloads. This also means increased costs for the courts.
Meanwhile, Republican Senators in Arizona have continued to speak of Operation Streamline's apparent success. In addition, the Border Patrol has also stated that “the program not only imposes new consequences for the crime of illegal entry, but also ‘ensures the consequences are upheld to the full extent of the law.'”
In terms of funding, the program was set to receive three times more than it had previously if last summer's proposed immigration reform bill had made it past the House. With that amount of funding, Tucson could have increased its prosecutions to more than 200 each day.
Part of the reasoning behind a program like Operation Streamline is to not only hand down harsher sentences to those who attempt to enter the country without documentation, but it is also a way for federal officials to “target people with criminal records as a priority for deportations.” According to estimates from the Congressional Research Service, “half of all immigrants facing criminal charges along the border are put through Operation Streamline.” There were approximately 208,930 individuals processed through Operation Streamline in 2012. When looking at the city of Tucson, there have been in excess of 74,000 individuals processed since the beginning of the program.
When considering the criminal histories of these immigrants, it is true that some have serious prior convictions, but the majority of the immigrants involved with Operation Streamline are those whose worst offense is having attempted to cross into the U.S. without documentation on one or more prior occasions. When it comes to plea agreements, the program “gives defendants a plea deal allowing them to admit guilt to less serious charges in exchange for dropping the felony.” In most of these cases, an immigrant will receive 30 days to six months in jail, detention center, or private prison.
However, even after serving their sentences and being returned to Mexico, many immigrants will continue to attempt to enter the U.S. without documentation in order to have the chance at a better life for themselves and their families.