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Operation Streamline drastically changed the way the United States government prosecutes illegal crossings in certain areas of the southern border. The goal of the initiative was to deter the number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border, and it was introduced during President George W. Bush’s administration in 2005.
Before the operation, the government prosecuted illegal crossing as a civil offense and practiced a catch and release approach — in which immigrants were released from DHS custody pending their immigration court proceedings. Operation Streamline permitted the consideration of first-time illegal crossing a criminal offense, even for those who did not have a criminal history.
Individuals caught could be prosecuted for misdemeanor, which could be punishable by up to 6 month in jail and a fine. For those who re-enter and commit a second offense, they could face charges of up to 20 years in jail depending on their criminal history.
Due to the amount of time that immigrants could be in jail, most of those prosecuted by the operation pleaded guilty to their criminal charge to get a lesser conviction. For individuals who wanted to fight a charge and ask for a trial, they could end up waiting at least a month in jail.
The operation received plenty of criticism. The initiative conducted group prosecutions with as many as 80 people being prosecuted in a single hearing. This so-called “streamline” process could charge and sentence multiple individuals in a matter of hours, which deprives migrants of individualized hearings.
Some lawyers argued it violated Article 31 of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, which prohibits persecuting illegal crossing or presence as a criminal offense. Some scholars also argued that it undermines due process, because the operation did not permit immigrants an opportunity to present their claims for asylum.
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