The debate over the proposed "comprehensive immigration reform" bill is intensifying, with a "gang of six" senators attempting to hash out a bill that would regularize the status of some undocumented immigrants but may also include increased funding for harsh border enforcement policies.
This debate overlooks the astounding fact that federal spending on immigration enforcement now surpasses all other federal law enforcement activities combined. One of the most costly of these programs is Operation Streamline, a little-known enforcement program that is part of broader trend funneling immigrants into the criminal justice system. These policies channel billions of dollars to private prison corporations and are fueling the explosive growth in numbers of Latinos in prison. The "gang of six" are reportedly considering expanding funding of Operation Streamline.
Streamline, started in 2005 along a 210-mile section of the Texas-Mexico border around Del Rio, Texas, mandates that most immigrants apprehended crossing the border in designated areas are referred for criminal prosecution in the federal justice system.
Streamline is part of a broader trend of criminally charging immigrants under one of two federal crimes: 8 USC § 1325, unlawful entry of an immigrant, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in custody, or 8 USC § 1326, unlawful re-entry of a deported immigrant, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. In the past, immigrants apprehended crossing the border were dealt with almost exclusively within the civil immigration system.
My organization, Grassroots Leadership, recently released a report on the program. We found the following:
- Latinos now make up more than half of all those sentenced to federal prison despite making up only 16 percent of the country's population, largely because of immigration prosecutions.
- By 2011, unlawful entry and unlawful re-entry were the two single most prosecuted crimes in the federal judicial system. More than 38,000 migrants were prosecuted under the unlawful entry statute and were sentenced, on average to 30 days in jail. And, more than 33,000 migrants were convicted of re-entry with an average sentence of more than a year in federal prison.
- The federal government now commits over $1.02 billion per year towards sentenced days for the criminal incarceration of migrants. Since 2005, the federal government has spent an estimated $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry, above and beyond the civil immigration system.
- The private prison industry is one of the biggest beneficiaries of criminal prosecutions of migrants. Lucrative contracts for Bureau of Prisons-contracted "Criminal Alien Requirement" prisons have contributed to record profits for corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. Company big-wigs are not shy about the impact of these programs. George Zoley, Chairman, CEO and founder of GEO Group said, "The main driver for the growth of new beds at the federal level continues to be the detention and incarceration of criminal aliens."
- Operation Streamline has created a "judicial emergency" by overwhelming courts along the border. Just five of the nation's 94 federal court districts now handle 41 percent of all federal cases.
Luckily, a broad coalition of faith, labor, immigration reform, civil rights and civil liberties, border groups, and criminal justice reform organizations have come together to call for the end to Operation Streamline and the criminalization of migration.
It's time to end this country's failed border militarization policy. A good first step is repealing Operation Streamline and ending the criminalization of migration.