In March 2013, immigrants were processed by U.S. marshals in Tucson’s federal courthouse before a mass plea. Typically, all plead guilty and are quickly sentenced.

The Border Patrol is not fully measuring the effectiveness of prosecuting illegal immigrants in groups, does not know the full cost of the program and may be ignoring treaty obligations, a new report says.

The Border Patrol needs to measure the effectiveness of the effort known as Operation Streamline over several years, the Office of the Inspector General report recommends. The agency also must figure out how much it’s spending and develop guidelines on how to handle criminal prosecution of immigrants who express fear of persecution in their home country, the report continues.

Until recently, many immigrants 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.

However in 2005 Operation Streamline was created in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector in Texas to create a zero-tolerance policy, criminally prosecuting illegal immigrants as a deterrent. This occurred at a time when the number of Central Americans crossing into Texas started to rise.

Before Streamline, the Border Patrol was releasing the immigrants with a notice to appear before an immigration official at a later time because Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not have enough detention space to hold them while their cases went forward or they were processed for deportation. But few were showing up to their appointments, and the practice became known as “catch and release.”

The Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector soon joined Del Rio in implementing Operation Streamline and a version of the program eventually was adopted in eight of the nine sectors along the Southwest border, including in the Tucson Sector.

Under Streamline, defendants in Tucson meet briefly with their attorneys, give up their right to a trial, accept a plea agreement, plead guilty and get sentenced — all within a few hours. Most are charged with the felony of illegal re-entry and the misdemeanor of illegal entry and plea down to the lesser charge.

As of December 2014, only the Tucson, Del Rio and Laredo sectors continued to participate in the program, the OIG reported.

The Yuma, El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors stopped using it sometime between 2013 and 2014, the OIG said, but still prosecute illegal entry.

Last year, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake sent a letter to the attorney general regarding Yuma’s new policy to prosecute only those with adverse immigration histories or criminal convictions and not those caught crossing illegally for the first time. Both senators have proposed expanding Streamline, citing Yuma’s much lower apprehension numbers.

On Friday, Flake’s office said the senator “continues to support Operation Streamline as an effective deterrent against repeat offenses, and he is pleased that CBP will be better tracking data related to the program,” referring to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The 2013 Senate immigration bill, co-authored by McCain, included a provision that would have tripled the number of people processed through Streamline in Tucson from 70 a day to 210. The senators were not reached for comment Friday.

Since 2008, more than 100,000 border crossers have been federally prosecuted in Tucson under Streamline for entering the country illegally — about 2,100 prosecutions on average per month as of June 2014. The numbers are based on court data and the OIG report. Neither the Border Patrol nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office provided the number of people prosecuted under Streamline when requested by the Star.

Proponents of Streamline cite lower recrossing rates for those who go through the program than those who are voluntarily returned. In fiscal year 2013, for instance, the border recidivism rate in the Tucson Sector was 9.8 percent, compared with a 27.4 percent rate for voluntary return, said the OIG, using Border Patrol data.

But its metrics don’t reflect a person’s crossing history over multiple years, the OIG said. “As a result, the Border Patrol is not fully and accurately measuring Streamline’s effect on deterring aliens from entering and re-entering the country illegally.”

Local immigrant advocates cite the high cost of the program and the fact that people with strong ties to the United States will continue to come regardless of the consequence.

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On Oct. 11, 2013, about two dozen activists were arrested in Tucson after linking themselves with plastic piping to block the federal courthouse parking lot, stopping two buses carrying 61 detainees. They were part of the local End Streamline coalition.

The full cost of Streamline is not known because there are multiple agencies involved. The U.S. marshals in Tucson estimate their annual Streamline cost to be $63 million, the OIG’s report said. There are additional costs including use of attorneys and incarceration. It costs between $2,400 and $3,500 to jail an inmate for a month.

CBP agreed with the OIG’s recommendations, but also said that measuring the success of Streamline is more than just tracking recidivism rates over several years.

The agency said it should be done in context with the push-pull factors going on at the time when the person crossed. It has developed what it calls risk indicators — which include average daily apprehensions, drug seizures, other than Mexican immigrants and first-time crossers — that give what it says is a fuller picture of what’s happening.

As for referring to Streamline those who express fear of persecution, CBP said it will develop guidelines for all sectors but that the criminal and administrative processes should be kept separate.

CBP can prosecute a border crosser criminally, while that person makes a claim of “credible fear” administratively. “Neither process affects the outcome of the other,” the agency said.

CBP said in a written statement that it will establish working groups to assure consistency of the program, develop a reasonable cost estimate and implement performance metrics.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at 573-4213 or ptrevizo@tucson.com.