“No, the only thing is that I know it’s wrong,” said Oscar Rodriguez-Rodriguez, sentenced to 20 days.
“I feel like I made a mistake crossing the border again,” said Angel Alberto Jimenez-Andrade, sentenced to 20 days.
“The only thing I can say is that I entered the United States to work and help my family,” said Victor Ruben Cisneros-Espinoza, sentenced to 25 days.
“I just want to say I made a mistake entering the United States. That’s all,” said Junior Oswaldo Hernandez, from Honduras, sentenced to 45 days.
“I made a mistake crossing the U.S. illegally,” said Arturo Flores-Decerra, before receiving a sentence of 100 days. “I was just trying to make a better future for my family.”
An estimated 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants are living in the U.S. — roughly 60 percent of them Mexican. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, fewer Mexicans cross illegally into the U.S. each year, because of a mix of factors, including relatively high U.S. unemployment, improved economic conditions in Mexico and increased border enforcement. U.S. immigration officials apprehended 662,483 aliens last year, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics — the fewest since 1973. The number of Mexicans apprehended was just a third of what it was 10 years ago.
Yet during the same period, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, to 21,391 agents, and immigration enforcement spending has more than tripled. Penalties for crossing have also soared. Ten years ago, just 17 percent of repatriated aliens were formally removed, while 83 percent were simply returned. Last year 71 percent were formally removed and 29 percent returned without charges, according to DHS data.
Besides being a boon to private, for-profit prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, Operation Streamline has put an enormous strain on the criminal justice system, particularly magistrate courts like Laredo’s.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than half of federal criminal prosecutions in the U.S. today are for immigration-related crimes — most commonly illegal entry (a misdemeanor) and illegal re-entry after a removal (a felony).
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement together refer more cases than all Department of Justice law enforcement agencies combined, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Immigration enforcement spending topped $18 billion in fiscal year 2012.
“You’re criminalizing migration, people with no other criminal history except crossing the border,” said Astrid Dominguez, advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
Yet while all unauthorized border crossers picked up in the Operation Streamline districts are supposed to be processed through the courts, many are still voluntarily returned or removed without criminal charges. According to the DHS’ “Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2013” report, approximately 178,000 aliens — including 20 percent of all Mexican aliens — were returned to their home countries last year without a removal order.
Even those who work closely with the immigration system are unclear why some are returned and others are removed.
“Honestly, Border Patrol has explained to us a couple of times, and we feel maybe they don’t even understand,” said Alan Hubbard Frias, a protection officer at the Mexican consulate in Laredo. (A representative of the consul visits the court each morning to meet with the Mexican detainees.)
According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, “USBP agents use laminated cards with matrices describing the range of enforcement actions available for a particular alien as a function of the person’s immigration and criminal histories, among other factors, and of the enforcement resources available in each Border Patrol sector.”
“Certain apprehended aliens who appear to be inadmissible or deportable may be offered the opportunity to voluntarily return to their home country in lieu of formal removal proceedings before an immigration judge,” the “Immigration Enforcement Actions” report states.
Customs and Border Protection public affairs representatives in Laredo and South Texas, as well as spokespersons for the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, did not reply to multiple calls and emails requesting clarification on how agents decide who is voluntarily returned and who is processed through Operation Streamline and criminally prosecuteded.
John C. Paul is a public defender at the Laredo District Court. He estimates 80 percent of his cases are illegal entries. “We never know the details of their programs,” he said of DHS operations like Streamline. “We just deal with the result.”
What is clear is that the rate migrants are processed through Operation Streamline varies by sector and can fluctuate.
Earlier this summer, Laredo was one of the southwestern Texas communities that scrambled to cope with the unexpected and unprecedented surge of families and unaccompanied children arriving from Central America. During that period, Border Patrol was simply too swamped with families and children seeking asylum to prosecute their standard deportation caseload, according to Hubbard.
“I remember there was a day nine people were presented,” he said. “People were still coming across. Border Patrol was just overloaded.”
Hubbard said the case numbers have returned to normal, which is 60 to 70 Mexicans per day and another couple dozen OTMs — “other than Mexicans” in immigration law enforcement speak. OTMs most often come from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador but occasionally from more-distant countries such as Brazil, Dominican Republic and Peru.
According to Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. district attorney’s office in Brownsville, Texas, has suspended Operation Streamline because it was swamped with the child migrant crisis. “There they’re going after the full prosecutions for smugglers and serious charges, and they’re not bothering with the Streamline cases because they’re not seeing enough bang for the buck on those.”
But in courtroom 3C in Laredo, the assembly-line justice continued, with a few pauses for personal pleas.
“Your honor, he knows he’s in a difficult position, but he came here because he has 10 children in Mexico that he’s trying to take care of,” Paul, the public defender, said of Eleuterio Moreno-Linan, who stood before the judge in a green longsleeve shirt under a green T-shirt. According to court records, it was Moreno’s fourth time caught entering the U.S. illegally.
“Mr. Moreno, I understand your desire to come to this country, but you’ve already been prosecuted twice for this offense, and you’ve served four months and six months,” Garcia said before sentencing him to the maximum 180 days. “As a result of that crime, you keep on coming to this country, you’re going to most likely continue to be arrested, and the sentences will most likely simply increase.”