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Debate Reveals Divide on US Immigration

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform.
Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform.
Greg Flakus
Political observers say the only way for President Barack Obama to forge a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform is to convince Republicans in Congress that efforts to secure the border have worked. But civil libertarians and human rights groups are attacking the federal law enforcement program that officials say has helped reduce illegal border crossings. The debate over Operation Streamline reveals the deep divide over immigration reform.

In a conference call Thursday sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, human rights activists and legal experts condemned the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency program originally called Operation Streamline when it was first tried in the Del Rio, Texas border sector several years ago.

Almost all U.S. southern border sectors now use variations of the program, which involves charging every illegal entrant with a crime and registering them in a data bank.  Federal authorities credit the program with reducing illegal border crossings.

But Kevin Appleby, who represents the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on migration affairs, says the program violates the rights of people seeking a better life.

“Immigrants who cross the border looking for a job, looking for work or trying to re-unite with their families are not criminals and they should not be treated as criminals," said Appleby. "Imposing lengthy detention sentences on them, depriving them of due process, commingling them with other violent defenders is an inhumane process and should be stopped.”

Grace Meng, representing Human Rights Watch, worked on a study of the practice, which she says many Americans may support without realizing the costs.

“The American public probably has no idea how much these cases are taking up in the criminal docket, " said Meng. "Now over 50 percent of federal criminal cases are immigration cases. Illegal re-entry is the most prosecuted federal crime in this country.”

Retired federal magistrate James Stiven, who spent more than a decade on the bench in the border city of San Diego, California, says he is glad the program was not implemented there.

“Our workload and caseload would probably increase three- to five-fold if we had Operation Streamline in effect, creating not only due process concerns, but extreme versions of cost and expense on the judicial system within the jurisdiction where it is being operated," said Stiven.

But U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials with experience in operating the zero-tolerance program say it is largely responsible for a sharp drop in illegal border crossings over the past few years. They also note that many of the people apprehended are given what is called “expedited removal.” If there is no indication the person violated any law other than crossing the border illegally, and the person is a first-time offender who pleads guilty, he or she can then be processed and sent back over the border in a few hours.

The program is also defended by groups advocating stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.  Spokesman Ira Mehlman says critics of the law enforcement program are against any effective measure.

“The ACLU and others simply do not want illegal immigrants detained, they want them back out on the streets because they know very well that these folks are simply going to disappear," said Mehlman. "In many cases they are using aliases to begin with, they then go and use other aliases. You have to then expend resources to go out and find them again. If the ACLU is really that concerned about how we are expending our resources the last thing they would want is to have to go out and find those people all over again.”

Mehlman agrees that border agents should put priority on stopping terrorists and drug smugglers, but he says any violation of the law should be addressed.   

“Yes, we ought to pay special attention to people who pose a greater risk to American society, but that does not mean you should simply ignore all the other people who are violating our immigration laws," he said. "The reason we have immigration laws is that we understand that people who come to the United States illegally do have an adverse effect on a lot of people in this country.”

While there have been indications of bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, much of it has been bolstered by Obama administration figures showing that increased security on the Mexican border has worked.  Political observers say a move to abandon or radically alter an effective measure at this time could drive away support for the overall effort to reform the system.

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