Tougher immigration enforcement efforts coupled with fast-track procedures in immigration cases have combined to dramatically increase the number of Hispanics entering the federal prison system. Statistics released in June 2011 indicate that Hispanics, who make up only 16% of the U.S. population, accounted for almost half of the defendants sentenced to federal prison.
According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, convictions for immigration felonies, including illegally re-crossing the border and smuggling aliens into the U.S., made up about 87% of the past decade’s increase in the number of Hispanics entering federal prisons. Critics say that a large part of the increase is due to rapid, mass immigration hearings which began in the Del Rio, Texas sector of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005 under a program called Operation Streamline, then rapidly expanded to other parts of the border. Currently, U.S. Attorneys in all four southern border states have approved fast-track programs for immigration violations.
Prior to the fast-track initiative, immigration offenses were handled under a policy known as “catch and release.” Pursuant to that policy only a few members of any group of immigrants caught illegally in the U.S. would be charged with a federal misdemeanor, which could result in deportation or up to six months in federal custody. Most Mexican immigration violators were simply taken to the border and told to leave the United States without being charged.
Under the current policy, however, all immigration offenses are prosecuted. The first time a person is caught illegally in the U.S., the charge will likely be a misdemeanor provided he or she has no prior criminal history. A defendant with a criminal record, or who is caught illegally in the country a second time or is smuggling aliens, will probably be charged with a federal felony although such charges may be plea bargained down to misdemeanors. Illegally re-entering the U.S. after having been deported carries up to 20 years in federal prison.
Typically, under Operation Streamline’s fast-track system, groups of up to 70 misdemeanor immigration defendants are herded into a federal courtroom. Wearing headphones so they can listen to interpreters, they meet their lawyers, have whispered conversations and are then called before the magistrate judge in groups of five to be read their rights. They are asked questions by the judge, answer in Spanish as a group and enter guilty pleas. They are usually sentenced and deported the same day.
Meanwhile, felony immigration offenders are processed in a similar manner in another courtroom nearby. By entering guilty pleas, the felony violators can more quickly begin serving their federal prison sentences.
This fast-track program has been the driving force behind a jump in the number of immigration violators sent to federal prison – from 6,513 in FY 2000 to 19,910 in FY 2010, some of whom were also sentenced for other, non-immigration crimes. Supporters of the fast-track program claim victory in the battle against illegal immigration.
“We’ve made tremendous progress and are moving in a direction where there are consequences of continuous efforts to cross the border illegally,” said Dennis Burke, an Arizona U.S. Attorney. “If that has resulted in a higher number of individuals in the overall aggregate system being of Latino descent, I would say that is a separate issue.”
Arizona U.S. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl have introduced a bill to expand Operation Streamline. Kyl cited Border Patrol statistics that show a 93% drop in arrests for illegal immigration since the program started in Yuma in 2006. An expansion of the fast-track program to a zero-tolerance model would add an estimated 50,000 beds to the immigration detention system, at a cost of up to $1 billion annually.
Critics of fast-tracking criminal prosecutions argue that the downturn in the U.S. economy and resulting poor job market, combined with heightened border security and an increased Border Patrol presence, caused most of the reduction in illegal immigration. They also question the constitutionality of reducing procedural protections in criminal prosecutions for certain groups of people. Jason Hannan and Saul Huerta, federal public defenders in Tucson, called Operation Streamline a separate and unequal criminal justice system in a court challenge to the fast-track process.
“I think anytime you have such a large proportion of one minority group sentenced to prison that means the country needs to look closely at what it’s doing here,” remarked Deborah Denno, a Fordham University Law School professor and an expert on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Other critics claim that Operation Streamline is an expensive give-away to the private prison industry, as private prison companies that operate detention facilities under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) benefit financially from the increase in immigration prosecutions. [See: PLN, Feb. 2011, p.11].
Sources: Associated Press, USA Today, http://grassrootsleadership.org/operationstreamline
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