One of the things I’m looking for as I cull through the Senate immigration bill are places where immigration enforcement expands. The U.S. already deports more 400,000 people each year and spends more on the border than at any point in U.S. history. It’s been widely reported that at least on the border, more is coming. Before any currently undocumented immigrants will be allowed to apply for a green card in a decade or citizenship three years later, the Department of Homeland Security will spend as much as $6.5 billion to deploy 3,500 additional border patrol guards and add walls, fences, drones and checkpoints to the southern border.
But here’s a piece that’s gained less attention. As part of this buildup, the bill expands the number of immigrants who will face criminal prosecutions for trying to come back to the country after they’re deported. People get sent to federal prison for crossing the border. They’re locked up for years.
The Senate bill adds $100 million annually until 2018 to expand prosecutions for “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry” in the Tucson, Arizona sector of the border. Currently, the Tucson federal court funnels 70 people each day through these proceedings. Half the $100 million would be spent to increase in the number of people prosecuted in the Tucson three-fold, to 210 each day. The other half would reimburse county jails for locking up those immigrants who the government prosecutes. The bill will also allocate funds needed to expand the number of judges to handle the caseload.
Several people familiar with the bill writing process told me that Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans from Arizona, demanded expansion of Operation Streamline, a program that refers border crossers in certain designated areas to federal criminal prosecution.
Through the Streamline program, groups of immigrants are ushered into courtrooms and without much time with a lawyer, accept pleas in mass. They’re sentenced to periods ranging from a week or two for first time crossers to as much as 20 years for deportees with criminal convictions who come back after they’re deported.
In addition to more prosecutions, the Senate bill would also change sentencing levels for the charges, increasing the maximum sentences for many who cross the border, including an a maximum one year sentence for first time crossers.
Immigrants who recross the border are more likely than ever to be journeying back to their families in the U.S. In large part, that’s who these laws lock up. And because of this, the expansion of the Streamline program fits awkwardly in a bill that also provides avenues for already deported immigrants to apply to return to the U.S. if they have families.
According to one Senate staffer who worked on the bill, the drafters intended to draw a red line between those who crossed before the December 31, 2011 deadline the bill set to apply for a path to citizenship, and those who attempt to do so in the future.
‘It’s defintey drawing a firm line,” said the staffer, who spoke on background. “For those deported or who reentered before 2012, there’s a waiver” to apply to come back if they have family here. “But we’re saying we’re not going to be generous [to border crossers] going forward.”
These criminal prosecutions of border crossers have flooded federal courts. In 2011, “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry” were the most prosecuted crimes in the federal judicial system: 38,000 “illegal entry” prosecutions and 33,000 for “illegal reentry,” according to a report by the group Grassroots Leadership, which opposes the expansion of private prisons.
And the convictions are tied to a growth of private incarceration. Though many are held for short periods in county jails, tens of thousands of others are shipped to one of 13 privately operated Bureau of Prisons facilities used solely to hold nearly 25,000 non-citizens convicted of crimes. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that 1,500 beds would be added each year until 2020 to hold immigrants on criminal charges. The Senate’s immigration bill would seem to find a way to make this estimate an historical fact.