Five days a week, between 40 and 80 men and women in handcuffs and shackles are brought into Tucson’s DeConcini Courthouse, a high-rise that houses the U.S. District Court. The prisoners are dirty, hungry and sometimes injured from days spent walking across the desert before Border Patrol agents caught them entering the United States along the southern Arizona border without the proper documentation. Led into a second-floor courtroom, they sit quietly in neat rows on spectator benches and in the jury box. Across the courtroom sit two men in dark green shirts with “Border Patrol” across their backs.
Upon arriving, the judge advises the migrants en masse of the charges and their constitutional rights. In a few cases the charge is simply “illegal entry,” a misdemeanor. But for most of the defendants, this is not the first time they’ve been caught trying to enter the country, and they are charged with both the misdemeanor and felony “illegal entry.” The judge then offers those defendants a plea bargain: Plead guilty to the misdemeanor entry, and the felony entry charge (which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison) will be dismissed. The felony entry charge is “the easiest felony to prove and the fastest-growing felony in the country,” says Isabel Garcia, the co-chair of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos and Pima County Legal Defender.
All of the defendants take the deal.
Once they leave the courtroom, the migrants will have criminal records, be transferred to complete their prison terms of 30 to 180 days and then be formally removed (previously called “deported”), guaranteeing that they cannot lawfully return for at least five years, with slim-to-no chance of getting a visa thereafter. Any subsequent foiled re-entry attempt guarantees a felony entry charge.
This proceeding is Operation Streamline, an eight-year-old, little-known provision of immigration policy that was intended — along with the new fence that currently stretches 650 miles long and as high as 20 feet — to discourage illegal entry to the United States along the Mexican border. The provision is meant to “streamline” cases so that more undocumented immigrants can be efficiently processed in court. The harsh punishments are meant to deter subsequent re-entry attempts, and thereby eliminate future border problems.
If the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced on April 17 by the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” passes, it will triple the budget of Operation Streamline in Tucson and expand the program elsewhere. The new goal in Tucson will be to process 210 immigrants a day.
A flawed approach
Introduced in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005 as a joint operation of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, Operation Streamline was expanded to Tucson in 2008. The program is just one component of a deterrence strategy employed unevenly by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol. Proponents of Operation Streamline such as Arizona Sen. John McCain (one of those who drafted the Senate immigration bill) have long claimed that it works well as a deterrent. But there’s scant evidence to confirm that belief. Countless interviews with immigrants and multiple reports — the most recent a March 2013 study published by the University of Arizona — have shown that enforcement measures like Operation Streamline do little to deter people from re-crossing the border. Many immigrants picked up in the desert are not first-time crossers but people who have lived and worked in the United States for years. Some went back to their country of origin for a visit, commonly to see a dying parent; the majority were sent to Mexico after a traffic violation or a workplace raid. They have strong incentives to keep trying to get back to their jobs and families in the United States.
Legal and human rights activists consider Operation Streamline to be seriously flawed. Its opponents in Tucson have formed the End Streamline Coalition to raise public awareness about the little-known program and to challenge the way it is being applied. Members point out that many aspects of the operation — improper venues, lack of evidence, mass hearings and predetermined outcomes — pose constitutional and moral problems. The coalition is drafting a letter to all attorneys and magistrates participating in Operation Streamline, asking them to recuse themselves from further participation on ethical grounds.
How ‘streamlining’ works
Under Operation Streamline, each defendant is assigned an attorney, who may have as many as a half-dozen other clients in the courtroom on any given day. Called to microphones in groups of five or six, defendants and their attorneys stand before a judge to be instructed and processed with the assistance of Spanish-translation equipment.
In exchange for a guilty plea, a defendant in Operation Streamline waives his or her right to appeal and to a trial. Instead, each migrant, in a very brief attorney-client meeting, is coached to reply “guilty” (after a pause for the translator, defendants uniformly say, in Spanish, “culpable”) when asked how he or she pleads. Depending on the judge assigned, the process may take anywhere from two hours to as little as 30 minutes.
Once in a while a migrant will say he doesn’t understand, that he’s just trying to return to his family. Sometimes someone will start to cry and say he — or she — is worried about a dependent family member. When this happens, there is usually an embarrassed silence until the judge explains that there is nothing she or he can do.
On a recent Tuesday, nearly all 68 people accused of illegal entry into the United States spoke in Spanish. Fifty were citizens of Mexico, 14 of Guatemala, four of Honduras. A few Guatemalans were identified as being speakers of indigenous dialects. One indicated he was having trouble understanding proceedings because he could not understand Spanish. Predictably, all took the plea.
That day, the judge sentenced each group to 30 to 180 days in prison, depending on the number of times each migrant had been caught attempting to cross. The judge, who seemed to take care to be sure that defendants understood her questions, finished the hearing in 90 minutes.
At the end of each group’s sentencing, prisoners are led out of the courtroom by the Border Patrol agents to buses that will transport them to the small private prisons that dot the Arizona desert, where they will serve out their terms. After that they will be herded into unmarked gray buses operated by private contractors and removed — “repatriated” — driven the 70 miles to Nogales, Mexico, regardless of whether they have ties there. Or they will be delivered to another point along the border, called a “lateral repatriation,” intentionally meant to separate people from their friends and connections to make re-crossing more difficult.
In either case, they will essentially be dumped, with no money or papers, on the other side of the fence that at first glance resembles a rusty Great Wall of China.
The prison-industrial complex
The human toll is not the only cost of Operation Streamline. Taxpayers foot the bill: Under the immigration proposal before the Senate, the price of immigration enforcement, which was $18 billion in 2012, would be increased by $4.5 billion. Operation Streamline’s share last year was an estimated $180 million in the Tucson sector alone. The proposed bill’s 200 percent hike for Operation Streamline would ensure greater profits for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the Tennessee-based private prison corporation.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another member of the Gang of Eight, has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the nation’s two leading private prison corporations, CCA and GEO Group. Sen. McCain has received more than $30,000 from CCA.
This is the reality of having more “border security,” which both political parties agree is a necessity for comprehensive immigration reform. But that doesn’t mean just fences, drones and more Border Patrol agents; it also means breaking up families as a matter of principle.
Pima County public defender Margo Cowan, an End Streamline Coalition lawyer and a founder of the No More Deaths group, which provides humanitarian aid to border crossers, is blunt in her assessment of Operation Streamline: “Poor migrants will never be lawfully admitted to the United States because they are but pawns in our government’s great show of ‘border security’. ”
In June 2012, a year after the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would begin reviewing deportations on a case-by-case basis, President Obama praised his administration’s handling of illegal border crossings. “We focus and use discretion about whom to prosecute,” he said.
But the push to expand Operation Streamline suggests otherwise. “We should not be prosecuting innocent people — ‘streamlining’ them — just because we can,” says Cowan. “Operation Streamline brings shame on the very democracy it purports to protect.”
Susan Nelson is a veteran Chicago journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Tribune Magazine, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, Esquire and Reader’s Digest, among other outlets. She has taught journalism and communications at Stanford University, Columbia College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.