But When I Kissed the Cop Down at 34th and Vine

As I’ve mentioned in passing, most immigration violations aren’t generally handled in criminal court. If you’re caught illegally crossing one of the five (out of nine) “sectors” of the border where Operation Streamline is in effect, however, congratulations — you’ve just become an exception. Under Operation Streamline, anyone who crosses the border illegally is slapped with federal criminal charges and serves jail time before being deported, rather than getting immediately sent back.

It’s a Bush-era initiative, but so’s pretty much everything else the Obama administration has been doing on immigration enforcement, and that hasn’t generally stopped the GOP from throwing hissy fits. But Operation Streamline is the rare border initiative Republicans are willing to admit they like. (This may have something to do with the divide I mentioned yesterday between punitive and instrumental views of incarceration…but I shouldn’t speculate.)

Only problem: they don’t actually understand how it works. As makes sense for a program involving the criminal justice system, Operation Streamline is a joint operation of DHS and the DoJ. DHS has the resources to handle its share of Streamline; the DoJ does not. But when Janet Napolitano went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to talk about border security, Jeff Sessions praised Operation Streamline to the heavens and asked Napolitano why she hadn’t expanded it to the remaining sectors of the border. This led to the following exchange, which can only be described as faceplantastic:


Senator, if I might just interject. It’s not just spreading along the entire border. It’s being able to do more in — even in the sectors in which we have deployed it. Because we — we don’t and cannot cover — the Department of Justice, the court system in that area of the country cannot do 100 percent of the cases in Streamline, even in the sectors to which we have already deployed it.

So it’s not just going across all the sectors. It’s really looking at the burden on the court system, and the marshal system in those — in those southern district courts.



I don’t doubt that. But it — in areas where it is working, it has had good results. And I believe they justify the effort to figure out what it takes. And I hope that you will ask for the resources necessary. (emphasis mine–DL)

“Cannot do 100 percent of the cases” is an audacious understatement. She’s talking about a crisis. Judges in districts handling Operation Streamline cases hear up to twice as many cases as the average federal judge. Out of 94 federal district courts, the 5 covering the U.S.-Mexico border — South California, New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas and South Texas — handle 75 percent of the country’s criminal cases. In order to keep up with the caseload, courts have been forced to hold en masse hearings for up to 80 defendants at a time. The extra resources Jeff Sessions is offering for Operation Streamline wouldn’t just be needed to expand it — they’re needed to keep the entire criminal-justice system from crumbling under its weight.

Except that Sessions is kissing the wrong Cabinet secretary. The reason for this seems pretty obvious to me. Sessions et al. are invested in the narrative that illegal immigration is a crisis of national security, and that “securing the border” is the only possible way to address the issue. If  you only understand immigration in terms of “security,” any initiative you like must by definition be a security initiative. It certainly wouldn’t make sense that that mustachioed crypto-Communist Holder and his terrorist-hugging DoJ might have anything useful to offer you. Of course, policy is about more than which departments have names whose connotations you like, and therein lies Sessions’ problem.

Operation Streamline is obviously a disaster, and I don’t want to see it expanded. But it’s sort of hilarious that a United States Senator doesn’t understand bureaucracy well enough to be effective in expanding a program he likes. Or at least, I’ll laugh to keep from crying.

Permadisclaimer: my opinions on immigration policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization.

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Dara Lind

Dara Lind