Illegal border crossers arrested along Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexican border will soon find themselves facing two weeks to six months in jail, which now is reserved only for repeat crossers and those with criminal records.
The sector is working toward a zero-tolerance program known as "Operation Streamline" that is now used in the Yuma and Del Rio sectors, U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Robert W. Gilbert told a U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security subcommittee Wednesday. The program is also set to start soon in the Laredo Sector.
The program creates a deterrent that dramatically alters the dynamics along the border.
First-time offenders would be charged with a misdemeanor "entry without inspection," which carries a jail sentence of 15 to 180 days. Repeat offenders could be charged with felony re-entry and imprisoned up to two years.
Most illegal entrants from Mexico apprehended here are currently allowed to return home voluntarily unless a records check shows they have been detained repeatedly or have a criminal history. Only a small fraction of the illegal crossers are prosecuted.
That catch-and-release system, which has been in place since the early 1970s, created an empty threat to many illegal border crossers, said Robert Boatright, the new deputy chief in the Tucson Sector.
"There has to be a consequence. There is little or no consequence until you go to a Streamline-type process," said Boatright, the right-hand man to Gilbert. "It's going to be a change in paradigm; there are going to be consequences to illegal immigration."
Officials are in the process of meeting with representatives from the U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Magistrate and Public Defenders Office, among others, to iron out the logistics of implementing the new policy. Officials hope to implement the program it as soon as possible, preferably within the fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, he said.
Border Patrol officials Wednesday did not elaborate on plans in the Tucson Sector, but Andrea Zortman, an agency spokeswoman, said they are evaluating the entire Southwest border to determine which sectors would benefit from the program.
"It sends a message out that if you cross the border you have committed a crime and we are not going to tolerate that," Zortman said. "In essence, it serves as a deterrent."
Track record of success
Officials in both the Del Rio and Yuma sectors have reported dramatic decreases in apprehensions since launching the operation.
In Yuma, which implemented it in December 2006, apprehensions decreased by 68 percent in fiscal year 2007, said Jeremy Schappell, Border Patrol Yuma Sector spokesman. Officials there attribute that to additional fencing, lighting, agents and Operation Streamline.
From Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 12, 2007, 1,572 illegal entrants were prosecuted under the program, he said. Nearly all illegal border crossers apprehended end up going to a detention facility south of Phoenix where the average stay is 30 days, he said. The only exceptions are humanitarian cases such as parents with children and the elderly, he said.
"Before, they knew if they got caught, they could try again in a few hours," Schappell said. "Now, when we catch them, they don't have that opportunity anymore. They know when they get caught, they are looking at about 30 days. That's 30 days of income they don't have for their families."
In Del Rio, which initiated Streamline in 2005, apprehensions decreased by 38 percent in the first year.
But Yuma and Del Rio apprehend a fraction of the illegal entrants that the Tucson Sector does. Through August of fiscal year 2007, Del Rio ranked eighth out of nine border sectors with 21,000 apprehensions; Yuma was seventh with 38,000.
"We're catching on average 20 aliens a day so we are not running into the problem where we're being overrun with bodies," Schappell said.
The Tucson Sector has been the busiest along the southern border for the past decade. In fiscal year 2007, the sector recorded a Southwest-border high 378,000 apprehensions, 43 percent of all arrests, Gilbert said. The 897,000 pounds of marijuana seized in the sector were also the most and accounted for 48 percent of all seizures on the southern border, he said.
That level of activity makes the Tucson Sector an ideal spot to try the program, but it also presents a logistical challenge.
Like Del Rio and Yuma, plans here are to start with implementation in a specific stretch or corridor before branching out little by little to include the entire 262-miles in the Tucson Sector, which stretches from the western edge of New Mexico to the eastern edge of Yuma County, Boatright said.
With more than 700 apprehensions a day here, it's the only way to make the program manageable, he said. There will be a predetermined numerical limit to the number of people that can be processed under the operation, he said.
The plan drew criticism from at least one local immigrants'-rights advocate who says the jail time is excessive and won't deter illegal border crossers. It earned praise from border security advocates who say it will make crossers think twice.
"It's not an effective deterrent," said Jennifer Allen, executive director of Tucson-based Border Action Network. "We have already seen that people are willing to risk their lives to come across this border; 15 days is nothing compared to taking the risk of your life."
The mandatory detention will only delay the inevitable: people will try again when they are returned across the border, she said. Allen also worries how detention facilities already stretched to the limit will adequately handle a major influx of people.
But Neville Cramer, who worked as an Immigration and Naturalization Service special agent for 26 years and wrote two books on the illegal-immigration crisis, disagrees.
Time behind bars will create a significant deterrent that is more effective than fences, radar, cameras and barriers, he said.
Cramer has advocated for such a policy for years, saying it will prevent illegal entrants from being able to try to cross repeatedly and keeps them from working to earn money to send back home. He said children, pregnant women and people who are ill should not be detained.
"Word will get down to Mexico and Central America and that's going to make the trip north even more questionable," said Cramer, author of "Immigration Chaos: Solutions to an American Crisis." "The chances of getting in, getting a job and sending money back home are going to be even more doubtful."
The Mexican Consulate in Tucson declined to comment, saying it will wait until it receives official word of the program from the Border Patrol, said spokesman Alejandro Ramos Cardoso.
Though the program's logistical details and when it will start are unresolved, Border Patrol officials say they are confident the ramifications will be far-reaching.
"It's going to result in impacts that echo down south," Boatright said.
On StarNet: For more in-depth border coverage, visit azstarnet.com/border.
Did you know …
Operation Streamline was initiated on Dec. 6, 2005, in the Del Rio Sector in Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, partnered with the U.S. attorney, U.S. marshals, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. magistrate.
By June 26, 2006, the program was being used along the entire 210 border miles of the sector. Overall apprehensions decreased by 38 percent in fiscal year 2006 compared with the previous year and apprehensions of other-than-Mexicans were down 61 percent in that time frame, the Border Patrol says. The Yuma Sector began the program in December 2006 and has seen apprehensions drop 68 percent.