Immigrants Get Assembly-Line Justice in Federal Court

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On a late-June afternoon in Tucson, Arizona, 70 migrants sit silently as a federal district court judge takes his seat.

Their hands and feet are cuffed with a chain around their waist to keep their arms from moving. Many are still dusty from their trek across the Arizona desert, and their shoes are tattered from days of walking through some of the southern border's most treacherous territory. The migrants nervously adjust the headsets they'll use to hear the Spanish translation of the proceedings.

Over the next half hour, the entire group will be condemned to prison for crossing into the U.S. without authorization.

Seventy men, one trial.

An immigration reform bill passed in the Senate last week would greatly enhance border security if it eventually becomes a law. But a lesser-known border security program is already having a devastating impact on migrants attempting to cross into the United States.

Operation Streamline is a federal immigration and criminal justice program that began in 2005 and is now active in eight border court districts spanning from Texas to Arizona.

Streamline proceedings happen five days a week, and are capable of processing up to 80 people in anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The program permits the Border Patrol to detain and process migrants as criminals, and to sentence them to federal prisons for up to six months.

Defendants go through the process of meeting with legal counsel, making their first appearance, pleading guilty and being sentenced all on the same day, according to a 2010 report by UC Berkeley's Warren Institute. The study found that migrants are given only a few minutes of counsel regarding possible alternatives to imprisonment and deportation. As a result, the proceedings constitute a deplorable abuse of due process, the report found.

For the defendants here in Tucson, the 30-minute hearing means devastating legal consequences that will stay with them for decades.

During their brief time in front of the judge, the migrants plead guilty to the criminal charge of illegal reentry to the U.S. and receive a 30- to 180-day prison sentence. If they didn't already, they now have a criminal record.

In Tucson, Streamline proceedings focus heavily on those with multiple attempts at entry into the U.S. Migrants processed through the program are banned from returning to the country for at least 10 years. And the duration of the ban doubles for every attempted re-entry. In addition to the 10-year ban, a newly acquired criminal record often eliminates any chances of ever applying for a U.S. visa.

The program has prominent supporters in Washington, including politicians in the group of Republican and Democratic senators who drafted the recently passed immigration bill.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hails Streamline as one of the most promising border security programs. The senator's spokesperson, Brian Rogers, told the Columbia Journalism Review that McCain defends it "because it works."

The Senate bill would provide enough funding to triple the number of daily prosecutions in Tucson.

But not everyone thinks the speed-trial program is a good thing. A recent University of Arizona study suggests Streamline doesn't do a good job at stopping repeat offenders.

While 61 percent of Streamline deportees said they would not attempt reentry in the next week, 56 percent planned to return sometime in the future.

So the program appeared to be effective in the short term, but less so in the long term.

Due in part to Streamline, there are now more Latinos in federal prisons than any other group, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The increase is primarily a result of increased immigration-related convictions like those handed down through the deportation program. As of last year, 209,000 people were processed through Streamline.

As the migrants are being processed back in the Tucson courtroom, one person's attorney wants to make it known for the record that the only reason his client crossed into the United States was because his seven-month-old daughter was terribly ill. He hoped to find work here to pay her medical bills, the attorney said .

"I'm sorry for your troubles," the judge responds. "Your troubles may continue, but your problems will get worse every time you come back. Do you understand?"

The outcome of Streamline proceedings are disturbingly predictable. According to the Warren Institute study, 99 percent of Streamline defendants plead guilty and accept the plea bargain to avoid more extensive charges. Their alternative is to go to trial, and spend years in prison while fighting their case.

And all those prosecutions don't keep people from re-entering. At least that's how the judge overseeing the 70-person trial sees it. "It's feel-good prosecutions," U.S. District Court Judge Bernardo Velasco said in an interview after the proceedings.

The migrants are desperate for work and money, the judge says, and more sentences don't change that.

"A criminal law is not an effective response to a social problem," he says. "Everybody that gets punished is that many days or months deeper in the hole."

In other words, their financial need is even higher, and they'll be even more driven to cross.

***

An hour's drive south of Tucson lies the Mexican border town of Nogales, where busloads of migrants are deported daily. It's June 11, and Oscar Padilla López, 34, has just arrived there from a private prison. He's completed a three-month sentence due to Streamline.

López says the proceedings make "you feel powerless, sad and angry." The judge's terminology was difficult to understand, he says, but he was afraid to ask for clarification.

"We cannot even say one word because we don't know if it's offensive for them," he says. "One prefers to stay quiet and do what they tell us to do." This is López's fourth deportation and he is undecided about crossing the border again.

The possibility of being sent back to prison is his greatest deterrent, he said.

He sold his property to pay for the trip from his hometown in Puebla, Mexico. To return home empty-handed would mean that he and his family of three will live in even greater poverty.

Around him, other deportees lounge as they wait out the afternoon heat and discuss their plans to cross the desert into Arizona in the coming days.

"We come here out of necessity, not for pleasure," López says.

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