By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Putting a price tag on Streamline is difficult, so difficult that Congress is reportedly spending $1 million on a study to determine its overall costs.
However, there are estimates of certain specific costs associated with Streamline in Tucson.
In a report published by the University of California-Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute on Race and Diversity, titled Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline, researcher Joanna Lydgate estimated that it costs DHS $52.5 million per year to detain Streamline defendants in Tucson, at a rate of $100 per person per day.
Congressional staffers asked Lydgate to estimate the cost of fully funding Streamline in Tucson, if the program were to be zero-tolerance and hit every border crosser apprehended with a criminal charge. She and other Warren Institute researchers suggested that zero-tolerance in Tucson alone could cost $1 billion a year.
In August, President Obama signed a $600 million supplemental border-security package, from which many of the stakeholders in Streamline received a chunk, including $254 million for Customs and Border Protection and $196 million for the Department of Justice.
Presumably, some of this additional money would assist in the prosecution of Streamline cases. But when Republican U.S. Senator John McCain sought an additional $200 million for Streamline during Senate debate over the bill, New York Democrat Charles Schumer shot it down.
"Operation Streamline is, first, expensive," Schumer told his colleague. "And if you're going to immediately incarcerate everyone who's apprehended at the border, you pay for their healthcare, you pay for their food. It's over $100 a day [per person to jail them]."
Nevertheless, McCain and Arizona junior Senator Jon Kyl have made fully funding Streamline part of their 10-point "Border Security Action Program." Both Senators claim that they believe Streamline works and want to give the program the resources it needs. Yet there is little evidence, other than Border Patrol claims, that Operation Streamline is a deterrent. For instance, Border Patrol numbers have shown a 75 percent decline in apprehensions in the Del Rio sector since Streamline began there in 2005. But from 2000 through 2004—before Streamline was in place—apprehensions in the Del Rio sector declined by 65 percent.
Lydgate's study also noted that large fluctuations in Border Patrol apprehensions preceded Streamline's implementation. And she attributes the more recent decline between 2005 to 2008 to more powerful factors including the economic downturn. Her study, for instance, offers a chart indicating that "border apprehensions have largely [mirrored fluctuations in] the U.S. job market since 1991."
Lydgate contends Streamline is a drain on resources that could otherwise be used to fight more serious criminal activity. A supplemental study by Lydgate analyzed border enforcement in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California. That office does not participate in Operation Streamline and does not prosecute first-time border crossers, instead focusing on "crossers it believes are most likely to cause violence." The Southern District ranks "first nationwide in per capita prosecutions of alien smuggling...and importing controlled substances," according to Lydgate.
Border Patrol claims a low 12 percent recidivism rate for Streamline. But critics disagree, saying that a realistic recidivism rate cannot be determined when the Border Patrol cannot estimate how many migrants elude capture. "From the perspective of defense attorneys," Lydgate says, "they do see people who come back again. There's no doubt that that happens."
And there's substantial evidence that Streamline has overtaxed the criminal justice system. Judge Roll, for instance, says the Tucson court is basically running at capacity and doesn't have the space to increase even to the 100 cases a day the Border Patrol would like to see.
"We have absolutely no free space in the courthouse in Tucson," Roll says. "All courtrooms are fully utilized."
Streamline's strain is felt beyond Arizona. Lydgate asserts that prosecutions of "petty immigration-related offenses" have skyrocketed 330 percent in border courts from 2002 to 2008. She quotes a 2008 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts as stating: "There are simply not enough jail beds, holding cells, courtrooms, and related court facilities along the border to handle all the cases that the government would like to prosecute under [Operation Streamline]."
In 2008 testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee, federal public defender supervisor Williams summed up Operation Streamline in words that still ring true. "Operation Streamline," she said, "may well be one of the least successful, but most costly and time-consuming ways of discouraging [illegal] entries and reentries."
If Williams is correct, why does the Obama administration continue to back this pricey policy lemon?
Perhaps there are simply too many who profit from Streamline.
Certainly, the Border Patrol benefits: Its increasingly bloated budget is nearly $3.6 billion for fiscal year 2010, with more than 20,000 agents nationwide.
In addition, the $600 million supplemental border-security package recently signed by President Obama will add 1,000 Border Patrol agents and 500 customs officers to the southwest border. They will be assisted by the 1,200 National Guard troops deployed by the Obama administration to the region.
Also, private prisons profit off the creation of newly minted "criminal aliens," with the U.S. Marshal for Arizona alone now shelling out $13 million a month—potentially $156 million a year—to Corrections Corporation of America to hold federal prisoners.