HOUSTON — Since December 2005, a golf course on the banks of the Rio Grande has been a laboratory for a U.S. Border Patrol experiment called Operation Streamline.
Before, illegal immigrants tramped across Eagle Pass' fairways and into the hands of Border Patrol agents, knowing they wouldn't face jail.
But now, officials are using a "zero tolerance" policy, prosecuting and imprisoning the illegal immigrant before sending them home as criminal convicts. U.S. Homeland Security officials have credited the experiment with helping drive border arrests to a 40-year low, and the Houston Chronicle newspaper reports that immigration hawks want the policy to be extended along the extent of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Some experts, though, say the United States' sluggish economy is a major factor for the drop.
"The Border Patrol has always tried new strategies, and the immigrants keep coming," Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Texas sociology professor, told the Chronicle. "What seems to make the big difference is not the border strategy but the economic recession and things that happen in the (U.S.) interior, like checking for driver's licenses and IDs."
Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Immigration Forum, agrees with Rodriguez.
"Everything the Border Patrol claims Streamline has created could just as easily be attributed to the falling number of open jobs in the United States," she said.
Under a 1952 federal law that made it a crime to illegally enter the United States, first-time offenders can be sentenced to up to six months in prison. It rises to up to two years for a second offense. The zero-tolerance zone for Operation Streamline has been extended to include all 210 miles (340 kilometers) of the Del Rio sector and other stretches of Mexico's border with Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Since Operation Streamline started, reports from the Justice Department show nationwide prosecutions of first-offense misdemeanor illegal entry cases increased 218 percent -- from 15,600 in 2005 to nearly 50,000 in 2011.
Critics say the prosecutions and imprisonments have overwhelmed courts along the border, creating what federal public defender William Fry of Del Rio calls a "nightmare" for the due process rights of immigrants.
Fry told the Chronicle that many of the first offenders do not know that their convictions could disqualify them from obtaining legal entry into the United States. Also, the number of cases flooding the courts inevitably lead to mistakes, he said.
"As a consequence, believe it or not, you can sometimes find an American citizen or a lawful permanent resident on the Streamline docket," he said.
In a 2010 ruling, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin called Streamline's cost to taxpayers "simply mind-boggling."
Top Obama administration officials say the policy is just one part of its new border enforcement strategy.
"Streamline is important, but it is a big piece of a bigger system," said Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello.
But Border Patrol officials are happy with the program's results. Some days, Cesar Cantu Jr., chief of the Border Patrol's Eagle Pass Station, says he can count the number of illegal immigrants his agents catch on his two hands. That's down from a peak that he says exceeded 500 a day.
"It took some time for word to go back into Central and South America, but once it did the tide shifted," he said.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press