PHOENIX — Migrants who are caught crossing the border illegally for the first time are now facing criminal charges in federal court in Arizona as the Trump administration steps up efforts to deter illegal immigration.
First-time offenders until recently were deported instead of being criminally prosecuted.
That changed as of June in the Tucson Sector, which includes most of Arizona’s border with Mexico and which has already seen the prosecution of 565 first-time offenders, the agency said in a news release this week.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says immigrants are charged with misdemeanors and tried in federal court under Operation Streamline, a 12-year-old initiative in which migrants are charged, enter pleas and are sentenced within a few minutes in large groups.
Critics of Operation Streamline say it burdens the courts and results in migrants going through more dangerous routes to avoid getting caught. The Border Patrol says it decreases recidivism.
Tucson Sector spokesman Daniel Hernandez said the agency is able to go after first-time offenders because fewer border crossers have freed up resources. The program for first-time offenders is already in place in one part of Texas and was previously in effect in Tucson, although it has been several years since it was used.
“This one is aimed specifically to deter people from coming to the country illegally in a way that prevents deaths,” Hernandez said. “It creates consequences in the west desert region where we’re having a lot of people distressed.”
The Tucson Sector has seen a rash of heat deaths and rescues during the past few weeks even as illegal border crossings are at an all-time low.
Border crossers without a prior record are being turned over to federal prosecutors, Hernandez said.
First-time offenders are charged with a misdemeanor and are typically sentenced to time served unless they have aggravating circumstances, said Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.
He said that two Customs and Border Protection attorneys are detailed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson and that they exclusively handle the program docket.
A recent docket for Operation Streamline, which takes place in Tucson several times a week, shows that 58 immigrants were tried on Thursday. About 35 were first-time offenders who were charged with improper entry. The rest were migrants who have previously been caught at the border and were charged with illegal re-entry.