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New Report Reveals No Evidence Tougher Immigration Laws Deters Migration

A new report published by the Vera Institute for Justice and titled “Operation Streamline: No Evidence that Criminal Prosecution Deters Migration” found that there is no evidence stricter immigration laws and criminal prosecution deters migration across the U.S. – Mexico border.

The report comes as the Trump administration has ramped up prosecution of border crossings and refused asylum claims under an administration that has adopted a “zero tolerance” approach towards the southern border. As the Vera report explains, justification for the zero tolerance approach stems from an erroneous belief in the success of an earlier immigration program called Operation Streamline.

Operation Streamline was a federal government program from 2005 to 2014 designed to discourage unauthorized immigration by treating most cases of people apprehended at the border as federally prosecutable crimes. Before 2005, most cases were heard by civil immigration courts, and federal prosecution was reserved for the most serious immigration-related cases. The immigration courts also treated cases differently depending on prior criminal status, nationality, repeated offenses, asylum claims and so on.

Operation Streamline Origins

Operation Streamline began as a local solution to an influx of immigration in the Del Rio Border Patrol sector of Texas, where the immigration system was overwhelmed when in 2005 the volume of non-Mexicans crossing the border increased from 9,896 in 2004 to 15,642. Mexicans apprehended at the border were more swiftly processed as they were released back to Mexico through a process called “Voluntary Return.” The cases of non-Mexicans went through several civil proceedings in immigration court, and the influx overwhelmed Del Rio’s capacity.

Del Rio didn’t have the capacity to detain the influx of immigrants and worried releasing immigrants with a note to appear at their immigration hearing would send a message that Del Rio was an easy path to cross the border.

As the Vera report explains, Del Rio “approached the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas with a plan: instead of diverting only those immigrants with serious criminal histories or repeated unauthorized entries, Border Patrol would refer all immigrants apprehended making unauthorized crossings in the Del Rio Sector for federal criminal prosecution. Then, instead of having to release non-Mexican migrants due to a lack of bed space, Border Patrol agents could funnel them into the federal criminal justice system.”

In December of 2005, the Department for Homeland Security (D.H.S.) officially introduced the program to the public and by 2009 six of the nine border patrol sectors along the U.S. – Mexico border adopted the same policy.

Did Operation Streamline Work?

As the Vera report explains, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the D.H.S. refer to statistics that show a decrease in the number of apprehensions of illegal immigration at the Mexico border after the implementation of Operation Streamline as evidence that the program worked. But Vera found while there may be a correlation in the numbers there is no evidence of causation.

Operation Streamline was a deterrence solution, but immigration scholars say migration is actually a complex mixture of push and pull factors.

“But contemporary scholars have consistently documented the limitation of the deterrent effect on human behavior in various situations, finding instead that the decision to obey a law is driven by more complex social and economic factors. In the immigration context, the decision to migrate is influenced by many “push factors,” like conflict or violence in one’s home country, and “pull factors,” like better employment prospects or rejoining family members already in the United States. These factors may be stronger than any perceived threat of legal consequences—including criminal prosecution, incarceration, or deportation,” the report stated.

Additionally, Vera argues when you zoom out and look at immigration data over a longer period the decrease in apprehensions after 2005 seems to be part of a longer-term decline.

A team of researchers at the University of New Haven, led by Dr. Jonathan Kringen, collected and analyzed border patrol data from 1992 to 2014. They found “no evidence of a deterrent effect in any sector,” and that statistical analyses indicated that the change in apprehension numbers “was the result of a longer-term downward trend in immigration and short-term volatility, rather than a deterrent effect of Operation Streamline.”

What did Operation Streamline Do?

Additionally, Vera reported Operation Streamline caused more harm than good for the immigration system. The criminal court systems were flooded with an influx of cases. The increased demand on the court system overwhelmed judges and lawyers, redirected time and resources away from the more serious cases, and undermined the court’s due process.

Since the immigration cases were now in the criminal court system, public defenders were required for each case. In the “particularly busy courts” that meant a public defender “might meet with up to 80 Streamline clients per day for only a few minutes each.”

Judges were overwhelmed too. Hearings were conducted in groups. One judge in Tucson told the New York Times that his record for processing 70 immigrants appearing before him was 30 minutes.

Additionally, Vera found the mass processing of the immigration cases meant legitimate asylum seekers were likely funneled directly into the criminal court system. All asylum seekers have a fundamental right to seek protection from persecution in their home country when they cross an international border as required by the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The published report summed up these findings into four main problem areas associated with Operation Streamline:

  • Federal courts witnessed a 159% increase in total immigration cases between 2005 – the year the initiative took off – and now.
  • People with legitimate claims to asylum were silenced, prosecuted and deported through the faulty program.
  • The U.S. economy suffered from the huge amounts of money required to maintain immigrants in federal prisons.
  • The emotional well-being of children of immigrants suffered during their parents ordeal at the hands of the government; and parents become incapacitated to provide for such kids, sometimes even getting separated from them.

“Security Theater”

Vera referred to Operation Streamline and programs like it as “detention theater” or “security theater.” Security theater refers to measures that provide the illusion of enhanced safety and security but aren’t effective. The increased presence of armed guards at airports after 9/11 is an example. Analysts claimed it may provide passengers with an increased feeling of safety but in reality, it did little to increase safety.

Operation Streamline is thus detention theater, according to Vera. It provides an illusion of increased immigration control and the illusion of a deterrence effect, but statistical analysis shows no deterrence effect.

In fact, it’s possible Operation Streamline increased illegal immigration. A study called the Migrant Border Crossing Study (MBCS) took a “random sample survey of 1,100 recently deported migrants in six cities in Mexico from 2009 to 2012, examined migrants’ experiences with immigration enforcement and its effects on family ties.”

The study found that the increased criminal prosecution of border crossings did not deter migrants but “almost the opposite had happened, as unauthorized immigrants already in the United States were deterred from leaving the country due to the difficulty of traveling back.”

Vera warns the new zero tolerance policies under Sessions and Trump could have even more disastrous effects than Operation Streamline did on both the immigration system and the well being of the immigrants – especially with the new policy of forcibly separating children from their parents.

You can read the full Vera report here.

Sessions Expands Judicial Team Along US-Mexico Border to Expedite Immigration Hearings

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