Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande – Executive Summary

The following is the executive summary to Grassroots Leadership’s “green paper”  Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande.  The full report is available at www.grassrootsleadership.org.  This is a green paper, meaning that we invite feedback, criticism, and suggestions.

Executive Summary

Operation Streamline, a policy begun in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in conjunction with the Department of Justice (DOJ), mandates that nearly all undocumented immigrants apprehended near the southern border in designated areas be detained and prosecuted through the federal criminal justice system, a dramatic departure from previous practices when most immigration cases were handled exclusively within the civil immigration system.  According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Streamline press release:

“Those aliens who are not released due to humanitarian reasons will face prosecution for illegal entry.  The maximum penalty for violation of this law is 180 days incarceration.  While the alien is undergoing criminal proceedings, the individual will also be processed for removal from the United States.”[i]

Operation Streamline’s key component is that it mandates that immigrants crossing the border in designated areas be arrested, detained while awaiting trial, prosecuted with a misdemeanor or felony charge, incarcerated in the federal justice system, and finally deported.  On December 16, 2005, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched Operation Streamline along a section of the Texas-Mexico border near Del Rio, Texas, spanning a total of 210 miles.[ii] Operation Streamline has spread to other areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, including much of Arizona and Texas.

Operation Streamline has exposed undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border to unprecedented rates of incarceration; overburdened the federal criminal justice system in the districts where it has been implemented; and added enormous costs to the American taxpayer while providing a boon to the for-profit private prison industry.

The extent of the program is so sweeping that by 2009, 54% of all federal prosecutions nationwide were for immigration offenses.[iii] The effect is more pronounced in border districts. In April 2010, prosecutions of 1325 and 1326 alone accounted for 84% of all prosecutions in the Southern District of Texas, which includes Houston.[iv]

Since Operation Streamline began in 2005, there has been a 136% in prosecutions for unauthorized entry and an 85% increase in prosecutions for unauthorized re-entry in the Western and Southern Districts of Texas. More than 135,000 migrants have been criminally prosecuted in these two border districts since 2005 under the two sections of the federal code that make unauthorized entry and re-entry a crime.[v] Operation Streamline has funneled more than $1.2 billion into the largely for-profit detention system in Texas, driving the expansion of private prisons along the border. Operation Streamline has significantly increased the caseload of public defenders and federal judges while radically increasing the number of individuals incarcerated for petty immigration violations in for-profit private prisons and county jails throughout Texas.

Data in this report show an increase in criminal prosecutions of undocumented border-crossers even as the estimated number of migrants to the United States has dropped.[vi]In 2009, two border districts in Texas prosecuted 46,470 immigrants, representing approximately 186 entry and re-entry prosecutions a day for federal courts along the border. Proponents of Operation Streamline argue that it has deterred illegal entry.  However, research conducted amongst migrants in the United States indicates that the decreased migration has largely been caused by the economic downturn, while the ironic impact of beefed-up border enforcement has been to deter migrants from returning to their countries of origin during the recession.[vii]

Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande presents facts, figures, and testimony highlighting the human and financial costs Operation Streamline exacts on migrants, the federal judiciary, and the detention system in Texas.  The recommends report recommends the repeal of Operation Streamline. Successor policies to Operation Streamline addressing undocumented border crossers should return jurisdiction over immigration violations to civil immigration authorities, reduce the use of detention for border crossing violations, and promote and promote a pathway for legal and reasonable means for immigrants to obtain legal status in the United States.


[i] CBP Headquarters, Office of Public Affairs. (2005, December 16). DHS Launches “Operation Streamline II.” Retrieved fromhttp://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/2005_press_releases/122005/12162005.xml.

[ii] The Third Branch.  (2008, July). Federal courts hit hard by increased law enforcement on border. The Third Branch Newsletter of the Federal Courts. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/ttb/2008-07/article02_1.cfm.

[iii] Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.  (2010).  Federal prosecutions sharply higher; surge driven by steep jump in immigration filings. Syracuse University.  Retrieved from http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/crim/223/.

[iv] Data obtained from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.  (2010). Syracuse University.  Retrieved from http://trac.syr.edu/cgi-bin/product/interpreter.pl.

[v] Data obtained from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.  (2010). Syracuse University.  Retrieved fromhttp://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/hsaa/monthlydec09/fil/.

[vi] Migration Policy Institute and BBC World Service. (2009). Migration and global recession.  Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf.

[vii] Immigration Policy Center.  (2009).  Keeping migrants here: recent research shows unintended consequences of U.S. border enforcement. Retrieved from:http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/docs/Keeping%20Migrants%20Here.pdf.