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At the Mexico border, a harder line on illegal immigrants

Risk of US prosecution, rather than a trip home for illegal immigrants, is rising as a deterrent to crossing the Mexico border. But the success of the zero-tolerance Operation Streamline is hard to gauge.

A US border patrol agent drives along the Mexico border near Palomas, Mexico. Repeat illegal crossings in one New Mexico judicial sector can now lead to felony charges.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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A few years back, most of the defendants in Judge Robert Brack's courtroom in Las Cruces, N.M., wouldn't have had contact with American criminal justice – let alone be sitting in green jail clothes and shackled at the wrists and ankles.

But under a new zero-tolerance program that has been implemented along sections of the border, migrants crossing illegally into the United States are prosecuted – not voluntarily returned to Mexico as they often were in the past. If they return again, they face a felony charge.

"If I see you again, under similar circumstances, I will give you a year," Judge Brack admonishes the defendants on a recent day.

Is the policy deterring migrants from slipping across the border? The US border patrol says that attempts at crossing are down.

Doug Mosier, a spokesperson at border patrol in the El Paso sector, which includes Brack's jurisdiction, says apprehensions in his sector are down significantly since the program began, by about 50 percent.

Cutting judicial corners?

But critics say that too many judicial corners have been cut, while more serious cases involving drugs and people smuggling have gone unheard.


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