News / USA

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.
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.

You May Like

Photogallery Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

UN Warns Air Pollution in Asia Pacific Has Rising Cost

Globally some seven million people a year die prematurely due to indoor and outdoor pollution with about 70 per cent of those deaths in region

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs