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Immigration bill would triple border-crossing prosecutions in Tucson

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WASHINGTON – The comprehensive immigration reform bill unveiled in the Senate this week includes language calling for a tripling of the number of border-crossing prosecutions in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.

The provision, largely overshadowed by national goals in the 844-page bill, calls for the U.S. District Court in Arizona to boost the number of Operation Streamline prosecutions to 210 a day, up from the current 70. And it allocates up to $250 million over five years to accomplish that goal.

Operation Streamline processes immigrants through court dozens at a time, with defendants often entering guilty pleas and being sentenced in the same day. It was enacted, in part, to deter repeat crossers by charging them with a federal crime on their first arrest.

The program has won praise from some Arizona lawmakers, but critics charge that it undermines legal protections and that expanding it is “just bad policy.”

“It makes a mockery of what our criminal justice system should be built on, which is due process and individualized prosecution,” said Regina Jefferies, head of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he supports expanded enforcement.

“The more enforcement you do, the more the deterrent effect on people contemplating coming across,” said Mehlman, who called the Operation Streamline language one bright spot in a bill that he otherwise dislikes.

Brian Karth, the clerk for the U.S. District Court of Arizona, said he was not aware of anyone in the Senate’s so-called “Gang of 8″ talking to court officials about possibly expanding Operation Streamline. The last time the issue came up was in 2010, he said, when the court and then-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., talked about the feasibility of tripling the program.

However the proposal came about, Karth said, it won’t become a reality without the money in the bill. It won’t just happen with the stroke of a pen and courts “saying, ‘We’re going to do it,’”

“We actually need to plan for those operational changes and have the space to do them,” Karth said.

The bill calls for increased funding for magistrate judges, attorneys, administrative support, pretrial services, U.S. marshals and more.

Karth estimates that it would take two more magistrates and additional interpreters, public defenders and courtroom space for proceedings to reach the prosecution goals set in the bill.

“The assumption that we can triple these numbers is certainly something we can do with the right amount of resources and allocation of space,” Karth said.

The bill does not address the larger backlog in the District Court of Arizona, whose judges had one of the heaviest felony caseloads in the country in 2011-2012.

Jefferies said the bill needs to be smarter about where it puts resources. She said that setting a high arbitrary number of prosecutions per day seems to make simple border crossers more important than drug smugglers.

“What it’s actually going to do is take away resources from prosecutors being able to work on more serious issues like drug smuggling, people smuggling,” she said.

The millions of dollars to increase prosecution of border crossers would be better spent trying to fix the reasons people cross the border in the first place, she said, such as an outdated work visa system.

The 844-page immigration bill, officially unveiled Thursday, does address the legal immigration system and work visas, along with a path to citizenship tied to a secure border.

Mehlman charged that the overall bill would provide amnesty to people who came here illegally, and more competition for American workers for few jobs.

He called other parts of the bill, which includes $4.5 billion for border security and the southern border fence, little more than “cosmetic.”

“On balance it is a disaster for the American public,” he said.