Heather Williams agrees, but for different reasons. A federal public defender in Arizona until recently being named to the Eastern District of California, Williams said deterrence as a public safety tactic is supposed to prevent criminals – fraudsters, rapists and killers – from acting on the impulses of rage or greed. But it's often family and jobs that fuel border jumpers, she said.
"It's a desperation to improve one's economic situation, or they're returning to the United States because their ties are here," Williams said.
Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security laud Operation Streamline as evidence that repeat violators will suffer the consequences with time spent behind bars. Border Patrol spokesman William Brooks said in an email that the agency's so-called consequence delivery system, which aims to mete out punishment for nearly all unlawful crossers, has been effective, driving down recidivism rates from 24 percent in 2010 to 17 percent last year.
"Breaking the smuggling cycle and reducing recidivism are critical to the Border Patrol's success in enhancing border security," he said.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found a similar drop in recidivism between 2008 and 2011. But the watchdog arm of Congress also cited much higher rates than the Border Patrol – a drop from 42 percent to 36 percent. For two Border Patrol sectors in California – San Diego and El Centro – repeat offenders made up the majority of individuals apprehended during 2011.
First launched in 2005 in the Border Patrol's Del Rio, Texas, sector by the Bush administration, Operation Streamline became a key enforcement tool and possible deterrent by criminally prosecuting certain border crossers.
Variations of the program – at times referred to as a zero-tolerance approach to border security – have expanded since to El Paso, Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo in Texas, as well as to Tucson and Yuma in Arizona, where officials implemented Operation Streamline in 2006.
During 2012, however, more than half of 6,500 cases reported in Yuma were not referred for prosecution, according to a data analysis. In more than 3,000 of those instances, the individual voluntarily returned home or was subject to expedited removal from the country.
In the Del Rio sector of Texas, where Operation Streamline started, 67 percent, or two-thirds, of the nearly 22,000 people apprehended were referred for prosecution.
But in Arizona's Tucson sector, 23 percent, or fewer than 1 in 4, of the 120,000 apprehension cases were referred for prosecution, with expedited removal from the country making up most of the cases in which people were not criminally charged.
Across the southwestern United States, that proportion is about the same: About 1 of every 4 people apprehended was referred for prosecution last year.
In a paper due to be published soon, Pia Orrenius, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, reports that criminal prosecutions have a local deterrent effect, but the overall impact diminished as the Border Patrol expanded the program to new areas of the border. Orrenius provided a copy of the report to CIR.
That "suggests that the main effect was to deflect crossers from sectors that had implemented the policy," she said in an interview. "It's still questionable whether there is an overall deterrence effect."