Criminal cases can wind through the court system for years. But through the aptly named "Operation Streamline," more than 70,000 illegal immigrants over the past five years have met with their attorneys in Tucson, heard the charges against them, accepted a plea and been sentenced by a judge - all in one day.
At first, the program - which targets illegal border-crossers for criminal prosecution and then deportation - targeted first-time offenders and sentenced them to the time they'd already served since being arrested. Now the focus is on prosecuting illegal crossers who have prior criminal records or have been deported before, said John Lopez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. As a result, most people prosecuted through Operation Streamline face a felony charge of re-entering the country illegally and a misdemeanor of illegal entry and are sentenced to 30 to 180 days in a detention center, jail, or prison after pleading guilty to the lesser charge.
The cost of the program is not fully known, but it costs $2,400 to $3,500 to incarcerate an inmate for a month. The longer illegal immigrants spend in detention, the more the government spends.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of eight senators working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, has in the past proposed expanding and increasing the funding for Operation Streamline as part of enhancing border security. But his office declined to comment on "ongoing bipartisan negotiations until after the senators have reached an agreement," spokesman Brian Rogers said in an email.
HOW IT WORKS
Until recently many people who crossed the border illegally were allowed to return home voluntarily if they didn't have a criminal record or a high number of prior illegal entries.
In 2005, Operation Streamline was created in the Del Rio sector in Texas to create a zero-tolerance policy and discourage future illegal immigration. The Yuma sector soon followed and a version of the program eventually was adopted in eight of the nine sectors along the Southwest border.
"The idea was that everybody who would be arrested would be prosecuted with an illegal entry or reentry, hopefully have a conviction and get some time to serve in prison," says Heather Williams, assistant federal public defender in Tucson and an outspoken opponent of the program.
Eventually, the theory went, word would get back to their home country and discourage others from crossing illegally.
A DAY IN COURT
Every Monday through Friday - except for federal holidays - up to 70 people who crossed the border illegally are brought to the special-proceedings courtroom in downtown Tucson's Evo A. DeConcini Courthouse.
A heavy stench hangs in the air. Most detainees haven't had a chance to bathe or change clothes since they began their trek across the desert. The majority are prosecuted a few days after they entered the country, but for a few it can be more than a week.
They each meet with an attorney before the daily hearing, which starts promptly at 1:30 p.m. Most wear headphones to hear the proceedings translated into Spanish.
"Good afternoon," Magistrate Bruce Macdonald, one of seven judges who take turns conducting Operation Streamline proceedings, tells a group of 39 men.
"Buenas tardes," the men, most from Mexico, answer in unison.
As part of their plea agreement, they all plead guilty to the misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to six months and a $5,000 fine. A criminal conviction will always be on their record and the deportation will be used against them if they enter the United States illegally again, Macdonald tells them.
Depending on the number of deportations, people can be barred from legally entering the United States for up to 20 years. Being convicted of a crime may also bar them from benefiting from any immigration reform.
After saying they understand the proceedings, Macdonald calls each name in groups of five.
The men shuffle towards the microphones in front of the judge's bench, their hands cuffed in front of them and their feet shackled. The judged asks again if they understand the charges, their right to go to trial and the fact that they are giving up that right.
After hearing a 'si' from each one, he addresses the men individually and concludes with: "How do you plead to the charge of illegal entry, guilty or not guilty?"
"Culpable," guilty, each answers.
Of the 39 men, 10 are sentenced to the maximum 180 days, nine to 30 days and the rest somewhere in between.
SHIFT IN SENTENCES
When Operation Streamline started in Tucson, more than 70 percent of Mexicans prosecuted got "time served."
By fiscal year 2012, the opposite happened, data collected by the Mexican Consulate shows. Close to 67 percent got sentenced to time in prison, while only 30 percent got time served. Another 4 percent had their cases dismissed, including those who were found to be minors or who speak an indigenous language for which an interpreter was not available.
So far this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, more than 80 percent have been sentenced to time in detention, while 14 percent received time served.
The consulate's data includes only Mexicans, but about 80 percent of those prosecuted through Operation Streamline in Tucson are from Mexico, says Juan Manuel Calderón, Mexican consul in Tucson.
Here, the program is called Operation Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative because the name "Operation Streamline" is reserved for places where every person caught in a designated zone is prosecuted - something that's not happening here.
Last fiscal year, about 13 percent of the 120,000 people apprehended by Border Patrol were prosecuted through Streamline.
The maximum number prosecuted through the program on a given day in Tucson is 70, in part because the U.S. Marshals Service doesn't have room for any more inmates in its cells at the courthouse, David Gonzales, U.S. Marshal in Arizona, has said.
Besides the space limit, there's the issue of cost.
"In order to expand it, we would have to dedicate another courtroom and more lawyers," says Judge Bernardo Velasco, who also precedes over Streamline cases. "The issue is if the public would be willing to double the cost of prosecution and incarceration."
It's unclear how much that would be, but researchers have tried to come up with estimates.
Last fiscal year, about $3 million was spent for attorneys just in Arizona, said Williams, the public defender. Private lawyers who take court-appointed cases get paid $125 an hour and each day of Streamline may take five to seven hours.
Grassroots Leadership, a criminal advocacy group, found the government commits more than $1 billion per year towards the criminal incarceration of illegal immigrants - nearly $430 million more than when Operation Streamline was announced in 2005.
A zero-tolerance approach in Tucson could cost $1 billion a year, researchers at the Warren Institute at U.C.-Berkeley found.
DOES IT WORK?
Lucio Blanco, 49 years old and originally from Puebla, Mexico, has been illegally in California and Arizona since 1989.
He's been deported more times he can remember and served three six-month Streamline sentences in places as far as Hawaii.
Three days after being deported at the end of February through Piedras Negras, on the border with Texas, he's already made his way west to Nogales, Sonora, to try again.
"My daughters are in California," he says outside the comedor, a place where migrants headed north or those just deported can get a warm meal near the Mariposa port of entry. "My life is not in Mexico anymore, what am I going to do?"
If he's caught, Blanco likely will be among the roughly 90 percent of those apprehended by Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector who go through some type of consequence enforcement program.
First-time crossers are often taken to a different part of the border from the one where they entered to make it harder for them to try again, CBP officials said.
Streamline is an even tougher deterrent, supporters say. The recidivism rate of people prosecuted through the program dropped to 10 percent in fiscal 2012 - lower than the overall 17 percent recidivism rate for the Southwest border, CBP data shows.
But in recent years, "we've seen more and more people who have been through Streamline before," says public defender Williams, "an indication that the zero-tolerance policy is not working."
In Macdonald's courtroom a couple of weeks ago, one man asks the judge to reduce his 180-day sentence because he got 105 days last time but stayed in jail longer. In other words, this is not his first time through Streamline.
During the 30 minutes lawyers in Tucson have to meet with their clients - in other sectors it can be less -they have to make sure crossers understand their rights and determine if there is any basis for asylum or refugee status that would allow them to stay.
Then there's the issue of the plea agreement. The offer to plead guilty to a lesser crime benefits some, but leaves the prison term up to prosecutors, Williams says. Still, detainees are getting a good deal, Judge Velasco says.
In Macdonald's courtroom last week, Mauricio Aparicio asks for permission to address the judge.
"I want to know if you can reduce my sentence because my parents depend on me. My father is diabetic and I don't know what they are going to do without me all this time," he says in Spanish.
"I'm sorry to hear about your family's situation and your father's health, but I can't reduce your sentence or the terms of your plea agreement," the judge tells him.
Macdonald asks if he wants to proceed.
"Si," Aparicio says.
He is sentenced to 105 days.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Operation Streamline is a federal program that targets illegal border crossers for criminal prosecution. It was first implemented in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, but a variation of the program has expanded to other areas of the U.S.-Mexico border, including Tucson and Yuma.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of people processed through Operation Streamline in Tucson:
Fiscal year 2008: 9,967 (program started in January, part-way through the fiscal year)
Source: U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.