TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – The federal government refuses to say whether prosecutors in Yuma, Arizona, have scaled back a years-old program that guarantees jail time for most immigrants caught crossing the border illegally and which law enforcement officials say is crucial to public safety.
Reports that federal prosecutors have stopped some prosecutions under Operation Streamline surfaced nearly two weeks ago when Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder seeking information on the status of the zero-tolerance program that circumvents the civil immigration system and lumps together months' worth of criminal proceedings into one day for immigrants caught crossing the border illegally.
Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot said in a letter to the senators that he had been informed that federal prosecutors in Yuma are no longer going after first offenders.
But the government has been completely silent on the issue. Public affairs officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have all refused to answer questions about whether the program has been scaled back.
Brett Worsencroft, president of the Border Patrol union for Yuma Sector border agents, said the U.S. Attorney's Office has in fact ended prosecutions of first-time offenders.
"Operation Streamline is like one of the last strongholds we have as a deterrent. Our manpower is dwindling on a daily basis," Worsencroft said. "The fence can only do so much."
Worsencroft said the program was a large factor in the steep decline in border-crossers in Yuma because it sent a message that even first-time offenders would serve jail time and because it allowed agents to focus their attention on drug smugglers and other dangerous criminals.
Getting rid of prosecutions for first-time offenders is a "free ticket into the U.S." for those who cross the border without legal status, he said.
Operation Streamline is used as a deterrent. Federal judges sentence large groups of immigrants within days of their arrival into the U.S. in fast court proceedings that include an arraignment, plea and sentencing in the span of one day. Most immigrants who participate in the program plead guilty to entering the country illegally and receive sentences of 30 to 120 days. Many get credit for time served.
In Yuma, all immigrants who are caught crossing the border illegally went through the program. That differs from the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, where the much higher volume of border crossers means that mostly immigrants with prior deportations are prosecuted under Operation Streamline. Prosecutors in parts of Texas also use the program, but those in California do not do so.
The Yuma Sector made 6,106 apprehensions in fiscal year 2013. The Tucson Sector, which includes most of southern Arizona, made more than 120,000 in that timeframe.
But the low numbers haven't always been the case for Yuma, which in 2004 and 2005 saw upward of 140,000 immigrant apprehended. Many attribute that drop to the implementation of Operation Streamline.
"This new guidance is of great concern because it undermines the mission of local law enforcement agencies throughout Yuma County for 100 percent prosecution of those entering the United States illegally in order to curb reentries," Wilmot wrote.
McCain and Flake in a letter also said that the program contributed to decreased immigration in that area.
"Achieving these gains in border security is no doubt a result of a combination of factors including increased manpower, technology implementation, and appropriate consequences," the senators wrote. "The Yuma County Sheriff's Office cites 100 percent prosecution as a shared goal of a partnership including federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and cites Operation Streamline as an element in the recent success in reducing illegal crossings."
Holder has not responded to the senators, a spokeswoman for Flake said.