Operation Streamline: An immigration boondoggle

Project Costs Millions, Tramples the Constitution, Treats Migrants Like Cattle, and Doesn't Work

She asserts that in post-conviction conversations with clients, public defenders may discover that defendants were not competent to go through the hearing and waive their rights.

Williams decries what she sees as the inhumanity of Streamline's conveyor-belt approach to justice. She bemoans the shackles and the leg irons each defendant must wear.

"They are truly being treated like cattle," she says.

Brian Stauffer
A bus for private prisons giant Corrections Corporation of America picks up migrants sentenced to time in custody by a Tucson magistrate.
Stephen Lemons
A bus for private prisons giant Corrections Corporation of America picks up migrants sentenced to time in custody by a Tucson magistrate.

The U.S. Marshals Service counters that all defendants in the Tucson court, Streamline and non-Streamline, are so restrained. The marshals cite crowding issues in the court, which operates at or over capacity.

Certainly, Streamline defendants are not known to be aggressive. But with three or four marshals in the Streamline court operating with three Border Patrol agents as backup, if all 70 defendants were unrestrained and wanted to pull a reenactment of the Spartacus uprising, the marshals and BP agents could be overwhelmed.

"It creates a huge, huge security risk to have them unrestrained," says Assistant Chief Deputy Marshal Ray Kondo, in charge of security for the Tucson court. "The only time they're not [restrained] is in a trial, because it would be prejudicial in front of a jury."

Yet it is unnerving to see 70 Latinos — whose main crime is wanting to come here to work — shuffling about in restraints befitting a serial killer.

Williams can recall more disturbing scenes — Streamline cases in which defendants had been in rollover accidents before they were apprehended. Some were paralyzed, but arrangements were made for their initial appearances to occur from their hospital beds, she says.

"We've actually had instances where Border Patrol has shot somebody," she says, "and the person has been brought into court a day or so later, fresh from the hospital, having had surgery and having been totally out of it."

There are also concerns about clients having TB, MRSA, bacterial meningitis, and H1N1. But because they are in custody for such a short periods, they often cannot be tested, isolated, or diagnosed. Williams says her office sometimes learns that the courtroom may have been exposed to disease after the fact.

More worrisome for constitutional sticklers such as Murphy is that by condoning Streamline's mass hearings, the criminal justice system is creating a dangerous precedent.

"There's the canary-in-the-coal-mine scenario," says Murphy. "The line between immigrants and citizens [becomes] much more porous."

At least one Streamline defense attorney offers a cynical appraisal of due-process concerns. Dan Anderson, who reps Streamline clients in Tucson a couple of days each week, calls the due-process standard in Streamline, "Your cheeseburger, no-frills, American due process."

Regarding Streamline's critics, he offers a jaundiced appraisal, noting that it's not just Streamline defendants who have due-process issues.

"I understand the hue and cry about due process," Anderson says. "But as far as I can tell, those same voices are deafeningly silent when some homeless vet pleads guilty without the advice of counsel and gets 30 days in jail for sleeping in a public park or [urinating] on a dumpster behind the Circle K."

Beyond the constitutional and humanitarian concerns voiced by Streamline's opponents, Streamline's cost and inefficiency call the effort into serious question, as well.

Streamline itself does not have a budget. Instead, the program pulls from the resources of the various agencies involved — U.S. Attorneys, Marshals, and federal public defenders offices, Border Patrol, and the federal judiciary.

Putting a price tag on Streamline is difficult, so difficult that even Streamline's most enthusiastic cheerleaders have no idea of the program's overall cost.

However, there are estimates of certain specific costs associated with Streamline in Tucson.

In a report published by the University of California-Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity, titled Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline, researcher Joanna Lydgate estimated that it costs DHS $52.5 million annually to detain Streamline defendants in Tucson, at a rate of $100 per person per day.

Lydgate was asked by congressional staffers to estimate the cost of fully funding Streamline in Tucson, if the program were to be zero-tolerance and hit every border crosser apprehended with a criminal charge. She and other Warren Institute researchers suggested that zero-tolerance in Tucson could cost $1 billion a year.

This may not be far from the mark. Chief Judge Roll estimates that doubling the number of Streamline defendants in Tucson could cost $18 million more a year. That would be in addition to the $5 million per year that Tucson's Streamline court now costs, according to Roll's estimate.

Tripling the number of Tucson defendants in Streamline could cost $27 million more. These are court costs alone, says Roll, and do not include "marshal or prosecutorial expenses."

Tripling Streamline's defendants would get the Border Patrol nowhere near zero tolerance. That would require about 1,000 prosecutions per weekday in Tucson, on average.

Federal public defender Williams estimates that for fiscal year 2010, the cost of attorney fees — including those of both public defenders and outside attorneys — will top $3.6 million. If the court began processing twice as many defendants a day, as has been proposed, the bill would rise to $6.3 million a year.

U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales says he writes a $13 million check each month to private jails giant Corrections Corporation of America for the incarceration of federal prisoners in Arizona. Gonzales says about 75 percent of this covers the cost of prisoners with immigration-related offenses, like those in Streamline.

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