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A Harder Punishment For First-Time Offenders Who Cross U.S. Border Illegally

Every weekday now, a quietly chaotic but systemic routine plays out in a courtroom in a downtown federal court in Tucson.

Defense attorneys, U.S. prosecutors and marshals in dark blue suits stand in groups talking quietly. And then, seven men and women are led into the courtroom through a side door by a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

They are dressed in orange jumpsuits. The laces of their shoes have been removed, the tongues folded out so they fit like slippers.

The seven U.S. marshals walk them up to the front where they stand in front of a judge.

Each person is questioned by the judge and then sentenced. Four minutes later, seven more are brought in and the process repeats itself.

It’s called Operation Streamline, and it’s one of the fastest mass hearings in American courtrooms today. It’s also one that the Trump administration announced it was expanding almost as soon as Jeff Sessions was named attorney general.

RELATED: To listen to an interview with Fronteras Desk's Michel Marizco on KJZZ's The Show, click here.

Last April, Sessions said: "Today, I am pleased to stand with you, our law enforcement officers, and to announce new guidance regarding our commitment at the Department of Justice of criminal enforcement of our immigration laws."

(Photo by Michel Marizco - KJZZ)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled out his plans for punishing first time illegal border crossers at the Nogales Port of Entry in April 2017.

Among his mandates, charging illegal border crossers with a misdemeanor.

Eréndira Castillo is an immigration attorney who works with Operation Streamline defendants.

"Many people say, 'It’s not a crime to enter the country illegally.' It is," Castillo said. "It’s been on the books since 1952. It’s not a new crime."

It's also one that’s being newly prosecuted at a level not seen in Arizona since 2014.

Operation Streamline was designed to take illegal migration out of the immigration court system and place it into the realm of the criminal. It was intended to act as a deterrent.

That result is in question after the Office of Inspector General found the Border Patrol had not been reliably calculating its effect on unauthorized border crossings.

Most defendants are sentenced to time served, then deported.

That deportation carries some weight in this federal courtroom though and if they are caught again, they will face real prison time. Those who have already been caught at least once go to prison. Anywhere from 30 days to six months.

The Operation Streamline court had 57 defendants on a recent weekday. Half were first-timers.

Auditors from the Office of Inspector General also found that six Border Patrol sectors, including Tucson, sent nearly 170,000 defendants to prosecutors between 2006 and 2011.

"The United States government pays $2,500, at least, to house an individual incarcerated," Castillo said. "And do we really want to house and spend $2,500 for one person because they crossed the border illegally? I think that’s a conversation we should have in our communities."

Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot met with then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, last March. Officials ended Operation Streamline in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector in 2014.

It’s an old story for the sheriff who warred with the Obama administration and went after crimes like marijuana trafficking, which the administration would not prosecute.

Wilmot described that era this way: "I had to cross deputize federal officers to be able to do state prosecutions because the guidelines of the prior administration were not allowing their federal officers to prosecute these individuals that were committing these crimes."

(Photo by Michel Marizco - KJZZ)
A man taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol awaits processing in the Nogales Detention Center in 2014.

Streamline is back in Yuma and now, Wilmot said, prosecutions for border related crimes are once again a federal matter.

Victoria Brambl is a federal public defender. She saw the shift begin three months ago.

"It is now reverted where a number of the cases are back to the first-time offenders without a criminal history and even without deportations," Brambl said.

At its height, Operation Streamline was implemented in six Border Patrol sectors across the nation.

It’s been revived in Tucson and parts of Texas and there are some changes. For example, a court ruling this summer mandated that defendants no longer have to appear shackled before the judge.

For its part, the Border Patrol applauded the the revival of the program. In an announcement, the agency warned border crossers that crossing a first time now carries a criminal consequence.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.