Border Patrol Goes Zero Tolerance

James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, November 20, 2007

After pleading guilty to entering the country illegally, the Mexican immigrant from Veracruz told a federal judge here last week he came to the U.S. to earn money to pay for his mother’s funeral.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to pay off funeral expenses, or take care of a sick family member,” explained U.S. Magistrate Diana Saldaña, referring to the plight of another immigrant. “When you cross the Rio Grande, you’re going to be spending time in prison if the Border Patrol finds you—that’s the bottom line.”

The frank courtroom exchange has become a daily occurrence since Oct. 30, when the Border Patrol launched Operation Streamline-Laredo, a zero-tolerance campaign that prosecutes, jails and deports nearly every adult illegal immigrant that border agents catch.

The controversial operation has jammed local jails to capacity, strained the staff of the federal public defender’s office and sparked charges that immigrants’ due process rights are being violated. But it has been applauded by those favoring strict enforcement of immigration laws.

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But at the Laredo federal courthouse last week, a mere two weeks after the program began, scores of ordinary people shared the halls where crooked officials, drug kingpins and human traffickers are brought to justice. They included bricklayers, construction workers, dishwashers and waitresses, all snared by agents after crossing the Rio Grande illegally.

The immigrants, in the same rumpled clothing they wore when arrested, were escorted up to the judge’s bench in groups of 18 or 20. After a Border Patrol officer read a charge that applied to the entire group, each immigrant called out “Culpable”—the Spanish word for guilty.

Limited legal resources

The judge repeatedly warned the immigrants—some of whom had been detained up to 10 times but not charged—that an arrest for a second offense could result in a more serious felony charge and a longer jail sentence.

“This whole thing about them catching you and sending you back isn’t going to happen anymore,” the magistrate warned.

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Arthur Thomas, deputy U.S. marshal in Laredo, said beds in Laredo jails are full, forcing immigrants to be sent as far away as Waco and East Texas.

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“We’re pleased because basically they’re enforcing the law,” said Louise Whiteford, president of the Houston-based Texans For Immigration Reform. “It’s long overdue.”

Border Patrol officials in Laredo say it is too early to gauge the operation’s effectiveness and declined a request for conviction statistics.

Laredo is the third Border Patrol sector on the Southwest border to implement zero-tolerance, and so far it is under way only in the metropolitan areas of Laredo.

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In the Yuma sector in Arizona, Operation Streamline eventually resulted in a 68 percent reduction in apprehensions between fiscal years 2006 and 2007, and during the same period the Del Rio sector registered a 46 percent decline, Rivera said.

Hoping word spreads

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Instead, they hope immigrants like Sylvia Licona Garcia will warn their friends about the new mandatory jail time. She was one of 70 immigrants, some from as far away as Kosovo and Sri Lanka, who were in holding cells last week at the Border Patrol’s north Laredo station.

Heard, but didn’t believe it

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In the same holding area was Jaime Pinto Aguilar, a 38-year-old Nuevo Laredo man who waded the Rio Grande on Nov. 11. Pinto, who has a college degree in international commerce, said he had been unable to find a job for the past four months.

“I told my wife I had to go,” he said. “Christmas is coming, and I’m not going to leave my children without anything, and there were bills.”

Instead of finding a job washing dishes in a Laredo restaurant relatives told him about, Pinto spent four days in jail.

“I will not come back illegally, not for anything in the world,” Pinto said. “I was in jail with a bunch of felons.”

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“People will hear of these cases, but in this community every day people are crossing,” said Anna Maria Pinto. “Immigrants are trying to get across to live the American dream, to find a job, to build a better life. But the consequences are very grave.”

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