The US Border Patrol is expanding a program along the Mexican border in Texas through which illegal aliens are prosecuted and are subject to fines and imprisonment for illegal entry. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the program has already had dramatic results in other areas where it has been implemented.

The basic idea behind the Border Patrol's Streamline program is enforcement of a law that has been on the books since 1952 that authorizes fines and imprisonment for anyone illegally crossing over the border into the United States. Since the program started in Del Rio, Texas in December, 2005 there has been a 67 percent reduction in illegal alien apprehensions. The program started in the Yuma, Arizona sector just ten months ago and has resulted in a 70 percent drop in apprehensions.

Some immigration experts have taken a skeptical view of the program, noting that there has been a reduction in immigration during this period because of the slowdown in US house construction, which employs many immigrants and that those who do enter illegally are probably avoiding the stricter enforcement areas and entering elsewhere.

But the Border Patrol began implementing the program in the Laredo, Texas sector this week with hopes of seeing similar success there. Carlos Carrillo, Border Patrol Sector Chief for Laredo, says biometric data and fingerprints taken from illegal aliens detained under the Streamline program shows that very few of them are returning through different sectors.

"The recidivism rate for those aliens that have been prosecuted under the Streamline operation nationwide is less than two percent." he said.

Carrillo says the drop in illegal border crossings has been so dramatic in areas that have implemented the Streamline zero-tolerance program that its success is hard to dispute.

Carrillo says the old method of processing and sending captured illegal aliens back across the border was ineffective partly because many immigrants did not take it seriously. Now, he says, they will face jail time and a ban from obtaining a legal visa for up to 20 years if they persist in entering the United States illegally, something Carrillo says could imperil many immigrants from participating in any guest worker program the US government creates in the years ahead.

"Once you are barred from re-applying for a visa to enter the United States, you no longer qualify for any programs that might come in the future," he said.

Carrillo says this program has also helped discourage people from crossing the border in dangerous zones where they could perish from dehydration or exposure.

"Since they started this program, Streamline, in the Del Rio sector, they have reduced alien deaths by 50 percent. As a matter of fact, they ended this year with only 18 deaths," he said. "I say only 18 because if you compare it to the Laredo sector where we have not had this program, we just started it, we had 52 alien deaths for the same time period."

In its initial phase, the Streamline program in the Laredo sector is being targeted at the city of Laredo and nearby areas, but it will eventually be expanded to the entire 273-kilometer Laredo sector border corridor. Immigration officials in Washington are also keeping a close eye on the program, studying the possibility of implementing it on the entire US-Mexico border.