THE BLOG

McCain's Efforts to Criminally Prosecute Migrants Make No Sense

04/27/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake's Senate Resolution 104 calling for a sense of the Senate makes no sense at all in its demand for criminal prosecution of first-time border crossers. The Arizona Senators are unhappy with a 2014 decision by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona to stop using Operation Streamline in Yuma to prosecute first-time border crossers as criminals. The Arizona Senators declare that Yuma's use of Operation Streamline is responsible for a decline in entrants in that region. However, there are no studies that definitively show a cause-effect relationship between programs like Operation Streamline and immigrants' decisions to cross. But what is known are the enormous costs of Streamline -- costs to our courts, use of taxpayer dollars, and to immigrants and their families.

In Arizona's version of Operation Streamline, a large group of people -- 70 in Tucson and formerly up to 28 in Yuma -- are shackled feet to waist to hands, brought into court and run through a criminal justice process that would appear too perfunctory even for speeding prosecutions. These border crossers -- charged with both illegal reentry and illegal entry in Tucson, or illegal entry in Yuma -- have their initial appearance, plea and sentencing during a single one- to two-hour hearing. All are advised of their charges, waive their rights under the U.S. Constitution, plead guilty to entering at a place other than a port of entry and are sentenced to a period of up to 180 days in federal prison. Many serve this time in private prisons run for profit by well-connected corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group.

The assertion by Senators Flake and McCain that criminally prosecuting border crossers works as a deterrent is simply untrue. According to a 2010 report by the National Immigration Forum, increases and declines in undocumented migration more closely track U.S. economic cycles than immigration enforcement. The reason that migration on the southern border is currently at its lowest point in over four decades is not increased enforcement, but the economic downturn in the United States.

The National Immigration Forum researchers noted that there is no evidence that undocumented border crossers know about the possibility of jail time. In a 2013 report titled "In the Shadow of the Wall," researchers from the University of Arizona and George Washington University with combined expertise in sociology, geography, Latin American studies and law found that the majority of migrants intended to cross again, that the effect of deterrence was difficult to measure, and that deterrence has a limited impact compared to other factors such as family and economic need. The "universal agreement" cited by the senators that putative deterrents such as Operation Streamline are effective in reducing migration rates simply does not exist.

The rush to treat immigrants as criminals has severely impacted our federal courts. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2012 federal immigration arrests represented half of all federal arrests. The next most frequent category was drug-related arrests at 15 percent. Immigration prosecutions have especially overwhelmed federal courts in Arizona. Chief U.S. Pretrial Services Officer David Martin reported, in the September 2012 issue of Federal Probation, that 91 percent of the defendants investigated by Pretrial Services in the District of Arizona in 2011 were non-citizens and that 81 percent of the charges brought were for immigration offenses.

The dollar costs of Operation Streamline are staggering. According to a 2012 report by Grassroots Leadership, since 2005, when Operation Streamline was announced, the federal government has spent an estimated $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and reentry, above and beyond the costs of the civil immigration system. In 2011, the federal government committed to spend over a billion dollars on the incarceration costs for simple migration crimes for the first time in history. Much of this money is funneled to private-prison corporations, the two largest of which are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group. From 2005 to 2011, GEO Group's annual revenue from federal contracts skyrocketed from $138.8 million to $640 million, while CCA's federal contract revenue rose from $465 million to $749 million.

According to the U.S. Marshal for the District of Arizona, U.S. taxpayers have paid $11 million to $17 million per month to CCA since at least 2008 just to incarcerate people prosecuted and convicted of illegal entries just in the Tucson U. S. District Court. Adding in that the federal court in Tucson costs a minimum of $20 million per month to operate, the total cost of Streamline in Tucson alone is at least $31 million per month or $372 million per year. In Yuma, almost the entire budget of the federal court was attributable to prosecution of non-citizens for illegal entry and reentry.

The costs borne by the people charged and convicted are many and painful. In Operation Streamline, they are subjected to a proceeding that evokes barbaric practices from past eras to strip the person of dignity. Immigrant defendants also endure imprisonment, and may suffer physical and emotional abuse, and loss of their property. And because their convictions prevent most attempts to legalize at a future date, they will suffer continued separation from their families.

Senate Resolution 104 ignores the tremendous multiple costs of Operation Streamline and other programs that prosecute immigrants as criminals. Our country is better served by rededicating our energies to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform, and focusing scarce government resources on addressing the root causes of migration, including the role of U. S. foreign policy, as well as genuine threats to national security while minimizing the waste of resources on a program that only harms human beings fleeing poverty, violence, or hardship to seek a better life for themselves and their families or to reunite with loved ones in the U. S.

It is time for the Senators to make some sense.