Video: Jail threat changes illegal immigrants' efforts

By Don Teague Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/13/2007 8:14:24 PM ET 2007-03-14T00:14:24

Just across the border from Eagle Pass, five men are waiting to sneak across the Rio Grande.

"I'm scared of drowning," says one.

They fear the river, but not the U.S. Border Patrol. Some have been caught before and were simply sent back to Mexico to try again.

"Everything was normal," says another man. "They did not treat me bad."

What they don't know is agents on this 200-mile stretch of border are under new orders called "Operation Streamline."

Undocumented immigrants, like these men, are now prosecuted.

Before Operation Streamline, those caught crossing the border would have probably been sent right back to Mexico. Now they'll see a judge within 48 hours and then spend at least two weeks in jail. They are convicted of misdemeanors in mass trials. Those caught multiple times could spend months in jail.

It's a policy the Border Patrol says is deterring illegal crossings.

"If they are sitting in jail for several months, they are not able to send money back home, and in the meantime, their family goes without," says Dean Sinclair, department chief of the Del Rio sector.

Since Operation Streamline went into effect just over a year ago, arrests in the Del Rio sector have dropped 37 percent.

"By sending the message to the folks that are crossing that you are going to be arrested, you're not just going to get let loose," says agent Kathlyn Lawrence, "it kind of discouraged them from crossing with the frequency that they were crossing. That has freed us up to be able to look more for the possible terrorism elements."

But critics claim the undocumented immigrants are being coerced to plead guilty to a law they don't understand.

"They are then convicted in these sham proceedings in which they are given one, maybe two minutes in front of the judge, and to call that due process is shameful," says Jennifer Chang, with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrant's Rights Project.

The Border Patrol says it's simply enforcing existing law and putting teeth behind what immigrants had once considered little more than a game.

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