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Feds easing back on some Operation Streamline prosecutions

A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks into Mexico from the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks into Mexico from the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona.

Federal prosecutors are easing back on their “zero-tolerance” immigration crackdown in southern Arizona where nearly all undocumented immigrants caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally have faced mass criminal convictions that carry stiff penalties.

Prosecutors in Yuma, Ariz., may no longer target immigrants who are caught crossing the U.S. border illegally for the first time to become processed through a controversial program known as Operation Streamline, local law enforcement officials said.

Instead, the feds are to prioritize prosecuting immigrants with criminal rap sheets and prior deportations on their record to enter the fast-tracked proceedings, where as many as 70 people are brought before sentencing hearings at once.

The slight policy shift in Yuma mirrors changes that other regions have already implemented as the backlogs in federal immigration courts continue to spiral out of control. While the Obama administration has made rooting out immigrants with criminal records a prime focus behind enforcement efforts and the number of deportations across the country have actually gone down, these expedited Operation Streamline hearings have only surged in criminal proceedings critics say is "assembly-line justice" that lacks due process.

In a letter to Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot expressed outrage that the policy shift would cripple the region’s tough reputation for criminalizing all immigrants who attempt to enter the U.S. illegally.

“This new guidance is of great concern because it undermines the mission of local law enforcement agencies throughout Yuma County for 100% prosecution of those entering the United States illegally in order to curb reentries,” Wilmot wrote last month.

Operation Streamline quickly grew in the borderlands as a program designed to give immigrants stiff consequences for attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally. Rather than immediately turn people away at the border or process their case through civil immigration courts, Operation Streamline adds an extra layer of criminal convictions for the illegal entries. Most of the immigrants caught plead guilty and are handing sentences ranging from 30 days to six months of jail time.

Yuma County became just the second Border Patrol sector in the U.S. to adopt the Operation Streamline program in 2006. At the time, the 126-mile stretch along the U.S. border touching California was one of the busiest corridors of illegal border crossings in the country.

However since 2005, apprehensions along the Yuma sector plummeted by 95%, down to just over 6,000 in the last fiscal year.

Sens. McCain and Flake responded to the sheriff's letter by sending one of their own to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month. Pointing to the dramatic decrease in border-crossers in Yuma, the senators said the numbers are proof that Operation Streamline has been successful in deterring immigrants from wanting to enter the U.S.

“The recent conditions in the Yuma Sector represent one of the few instances approaching a success with respect to border security,” the senators wrote in their letter to the attorney general, adding that the surge in unaccompanied minors at the border presents an “inopportune time to potentially be removing tools from the border security toolbox.”