Justice Department officials in the field and a federal magistrate judge who hears volumes of Operation Streamline cases in Tucson remain skeptical of its effectiveness. In an interview, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco said the drop in apprehensions is "because of the economy. It's not because of this program. The Border Patrol disagrees." "There's nobody who can tell you if the program is effective," Velasco said. "You can come up with your biased point of view, your impartial point of view, your favorable point of view and your unfavorable point of view." Eduardo Bolaños, 38, of Guanajuato, Mexico, said he wasn't frightened enough to stop trying to cross the border. Each of the three times Border Patrol agents collared him, Bolaños said he was threatened with years behind bars but actually served days in a lockup.
Speaking in Spanish recently from the San Juan Bosco aid center in Nogales shortly after being deported, Bolaños said he already had been caught on several other occasions since 2006 after periodically living and working in the United States since 1999. For now, he said he would return to his home in central Mexico.
Randy Beardsworth, who helped craft homeland security policy during the Bush administration, said the threat of a criminal charge can prompt individuals to voluntarily return home, something he counts as a success for the program.
"That was a desired outcome," Beardsworth said. "That wasn't a cop-out or anything. We didn't have to carry every criminal prosecution through to trial."
The persistence of some crossers presents a difficult logistical and political problem for the Border Patrol. Conservative lawmakers may wonder why every border crosser without authorization doesn't immediately face criminal charges.
But prosecuting every border crosser would jam the judicial system, experts say. Operation Streamline, along with other immigration proceedings, already has contributed to a ballooning caseload in federal courts over the past decade. In the five court districts along the southern U.S. border, immigration prosecutions accounted for one-fifth of total criminal defendants during 2012.
Congressional researchers report that although Operation Streamline "has been described as a zero-tolerance program leading to prosecutions for 100 percent of apprehended aliens, the program confronts limits in judicial and detention capacity."
That much was clear on an April afternoon in Tucson's federal courthouse. Fifty-four defendants, still wearing the clothes that Border Patrol agents apprehended them in, spilled over into a jury box, and an acrid smell of stale sweat and desert air permeated the polished courtroom.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Bowman then did something unusual for federal criminal justice. She had all 54 people stand before her in groups of four and five – chains at their hands, waists and legs – to face a charge of illegally entering the country after briefly speaking with an attorney.
"Culpable," came the response in Spanish when each was asked to enter a plea. Guilty. The group received sentences ranging from 30 to 180 days, after which they would be ejected from the country. The hearing was over in less than 90 minutes.
Down in Nogales, Ordonez, the Honduran migrant, seemed unfazed by the days it took just to reach northern Mexico. Considering the crime and poverty that he said engulfs his native country and the perilous trip north riding trains and evading bandits, another run at the Border Patrol was worth the risk of jail time if agents caught him. "I'm going to keep trying," he said. Shane Shifflett contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.
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