TUCSON - A U.S. Border Patrol program intended to jail all illegal border crossers captured in southern Arizona may be scaled back because of a lack of jail space, attorneys, law enforcement officers and judges.
The agency's "Operation Streamline" was expected to lead to the prosecution and jailing of all immigrants caught along the 262-mile Tucson sector starting in mid-December. The agency's much-smaller Yuma sector already is participating in the program.
But Border Patrol officials now say they hope to launch the effort in January by selecting 100 arrestees a day for prosecution. That's only about 10 percent of those caught each day.
First-time arrestees would face from 15 to 180 days in jail, then be deported. Currently, the vast majority of illegal immigrants captured voluntarily return to Mexico and aren't charged.
Handling even the vastly reduced number of prosecutions will be difficult, authorities say. The difficulties include finding enough room in detention centers, attorneys to defend and prosecute, judges to sentence and officers to supervise and transport the border crossers.
The Border Patrol has delayed the start date to Jan. 7 from Dec. 23 and is considering scaling back the number of daily prosecutions to 40 a day from 100, said Heather Williams, who supervises the Federal Public Defenders Office in Tucson.
Williams said her office will have minimal involvement. The office has 27 attorneys, and their workloads are already maxed out, Williams said.
But Robert Boatright, deputy Border Patrol chief in the Tucson Sector, said the program won't start with fewer than 100 prosecutions a day, or 700 a week, the minimum necessary to have a deterrent effect. He said no date has been set, but confirmed that the agency is aiming for January.
The U.S. Marshals Office in Tucson needs a larger staff to handle and process the extra prisoners. It expects its monthly jail costs to double to $22 million from $11 million, said Arizona U.S. Marshal David Gonzales.
The U.S. District Court in Arizona is concerned about finding enough defense lawyers, language interpreters and clerks, said spokesman Richard Weare.
"Anytime you double the workload, it's going to have an impact," Weare said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office will be able to handle the load - but only thanks to a promised loan of four attorneys and additional clerical staff from the Department of Homeland Security, said interim Arizona U.S. Attorney Daniel Knauss.
Even though 100 people a day is only a fraction of the total apprehensions in the sector, the program will still create a significant deterrent, Boatright said. He said the message will quickly reach smugglers and entrants and force them to find new routes, and additional Border Patrol actions will add to the effect.
Boatright said if the program is expanded to the entire Tucson sector, up to 700 prosecutions a day would be required.
Handling that number of cases would be nearly impossible without a vast expansion of facilities and courts, said Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal.