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Updated Feb 22, 2013 - 6:33 am

Legal, civil rights groups urge halt to immigration streamlining

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detain an individual during Operation Cross Check, a 2011 operation targeting fugitives, people who re-entered the country illegally after being removed and at-large criminals. (Photo courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

WASHINGTON -- Programs that fast-track illegal immigrants through the federal courts are costly, constitutionally questionable and are overburdening courts and should be done away with, civil rights and legal groups said Thursday.

The groups urged that Operation Streamline, which has been in place since 2005, should not be part of any comprehensive immigration reform package.

"The costs to the immigrants themselves, the family members they have in the United States as well as in Mexico, and any potential employers aside, we have to consider that the cost to our taxpayers in making Operation Streamline is absolutely prohibitive and hard to justify in these poor economic times," said Heather Williams, first assistant federal public defender for Arizona.

Williams joined members of the American Civil Liberties Union, a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops official and a retired judge who were responding to suggestions that Operation Streamline could be expanded as part of immigration reform.

Williams said expanding the program could cost taxpayers more than $1.7 billion annually.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona referred requests for comment on the programs to the Department of Justice in Washington, which did not immediately respond to calls Thursday.

But supporters such as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have said programs like Operation Streamline allow for "swift and sure consequences for those who come across" the border illegally.

Flake is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators who unveiled a framework for comprehensive immigration reform last month. Their plan calls for a secure border before a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants can go into effect.

Flake said several weeks ago that one way to help achieve more-complete security is by rolling out Operation Streamline programs in more border regions.

Operation Streamline was enacted, in part, to create a deterrent for repeat crossers by charging them with a federal crime on their first arrest. Under the program, immigrants are processed through the court dozens at a time, often entering guilty pleas and being sentenced in the same day.

Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, has watched such proceedings in several cities across the southern border, including Tucson. She described a scene where up to 80 men and women fill the jury box and benches normally reserved for the public, and plead guilty one by one.

She called it a "rubber-stamp process, a true masquerade of justice." She and others charged that the process infringes on the immigrants' rights to due process.

Tucson became the fourth court to adopt Operation Streamline, in 2008, and from that summer onward Williams said 70 immigrants have been prosecuted every day, five days per week.

James Stiven, a retired U.S. magistrate judge for the Southern District of California, said Operation Streamline programs put extra pressure on courts and attorneys. But they have "no particular deterrent effect" on immigrants, he said: His district did not incorporate Operation Streamline, but still had fewer immigration arrests than the neighboring Arizona district that did.

Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed what he called the human cost of Operation Streamline.

"From our view, immigrants who cross the border looking for a job, looking for work or trying to reunite with their families are not criminals and they shouldn't be treated as criminals," Appleby said. "It's an inhumane practice and should be stopped."

Gaubeca urged Washington lawmakers to think twice before expanding the program as part of any immigration reform package.

"Instead of expanding this program, congressional members should really suspend it and evaluate its true fiscal and human costs," she said.

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