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Sustaining Zero Tolerance at the Border

Since 2005 when a program known as Operation Streamline went into effect, the policy of zero tolerance has led to the arrest, detainment and deportation of people crossing the border illegally. Often filing minor charges against border jumpers, law enforcement agencies cite record levels of prosecutions. This is detailed in a new report showing 7251 arrests in February 2008, up nearly 90% from the previous month.

While some people argue that the threat of a criminal record acts as a deterrent, and is one of the drivers to reducing illegal crossings, critics also argue that the US hasn't got the resources to sustain this effort for too long, lacking, among other things, jail beds and public defenders. Other critics also comment that this program also misses the point of targeting the employers who would hire the illegals.

Criminalizing illegal immigration while turning a blind eye to employers who provide the jobs that lure migrants makes for good election-year politics but poor policy, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. "This strategy pretty much has it backwards," he said. "It's going after desperate people who are crossing the border in search of a better way of life, instead of going after employers who are hiring people who have no right to work in this country."

Still others claim that the crack down is simply pushing the illegals to attempt their crossings in other locations along the border.

"They're finding other routes," Ricardo Ahuja, the Mexican consul in Del Rio, Texas, tells the Star-Telegram, which reported on the program last week. "It's a question of supply and demand. If there weren't jobs waiting for them in the U.S., they wouldn't cross."

Before Operation Streamline, most Mexican nationals caught at the border were fingerprinted and returned to Mexico without criminal charges. Since 2005, people other than Mexicans are generally held until removed.

There are two separate but related issues here at play. The first is the obvious one. There is a job market for illegals, and without stricter enforcement against the employers of programs like the ICE Image program, workers seeking jobs will continue to find ways to stream across the border illegally. The second is that those people known as "other than Mexicans," have serious implications on National Security.

Frankly, until there is a "better way," zero tolerance, even to the straining of resources, seems to be a worthwhile effort.