Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline

Assembly-Line Justice: A Review of Operation Streamline


Between 2003 and 2008, the misdemeanor immigration caseloads of magistrate judges along the U.S.-Mexico border increased by nearly 250 percent, from 15,633 cases to 53,697. Those caseloads continue to rise. And nationwide, federal prosecutions of immigration crimes nearly doubled in 2008 over the previous year.

These striking numbers are the result not of a flood of immigrants entering the United States, but of a set of zero tolerance immigration enforcement programs along the border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced the first of these programs, Operation Streamline, in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005, and has implemented similar programs in five more border sectors since then. Though zero tolerance programs take slightly different forms in the various jurisdictions where they exist, they share the same mandate: the criminal prosecution of all migrants caught attempting to enter the United States in designated border areas. And though they are known by different names, the programs are generally referred to in the aggregate as “Operation Streamline.”

Operation Streamline has been lauded by its designers but criticized by many others, including judges, prosecutors, and border enforcement officials. This paper contextualizes Streamline among other immigration enforcement programs and explores some of the constitutional and policy issues that have made the program so contentious.

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