Monday, November 7, 2011

Operation Streamline

Operation Streamline is something I wish the whole world knew about because it is so awful and it needs to be stopped.  It is confusing and difficult to understand, but really important to be informed about.  Please read, reread, ask questions, tell your friends, get angry, tell me if I misunderstood something, fly to Tucson for a day to witness it, etc.

Operation Streamline is a preliminary hearing, a change of plea and a sentencing all wrapped into one that happens in 8 major cities along the border.  Streamline is for people facing illegal entry and illegal re-entry charges, mostly economic migrants. The shocker is that Streamline happens everyday in these communities and there is only one hearing for up to 80 people. Why don't you go ahead and reread that. 80 people in one hearing, one sentencing, all at the same time. Some call it the rocket docket. Some call it factory justice. Others, like myself, call it unconstitutional.

Operation Streamline started in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, as a deterrence tactic- if we try more people in court, if we put more people in jail, maybe they will stop entering the country in an unauthorized manner. Operation Streamline happens all along the border - the Del Rio court processes up to 80 people per day, Tucson 70 people, El Paso 20.
Where Streamline exists

It is open to the public and the first thing you notice after the sheer quantity of people (the people being tried fill the jury seats and overflow into the area traditionally reserved for the public) is the sound of chains. All the defendants are shackled. Their feet are chained together and their hands are connected to a chain around their waist. Even though their only crime is crossing an invisible line in the sand, they are shackled like murders so that there doesn't have to be so many U.S. Marshalls providing security. As it is, the Marshalls are stretched too thin, so Border Patrol assists in the proceedings.

In Tucson, there are up to 70 defendants, all shackled, most with interpretation equipment that they can hardly adjust due to the chains. They have all been caught crossing the desert in the last few days, and who knows how many days they were walking before they were caught, but they remain unshowered, in the same clothing they have been wearing for since they began their trek. So, upon entry in the courtroom, you hear the chains, see the masses of people, and, quite likely, you will smell them too. Veronica Barbara who we met in San Diego, went to law school here in Arizona and she told is one of the judges would light incense when he had to oversee the Streamline hearings because the odor in the courtroom was so strong.

Operation Streamline is criminal court; the government is only trying to prove that this person entered the country without permission or proper status.  The defendants in this court have no opportunity to fight for immigration status via family members, VAWA, asylum, etc.  If they had a means of relief, a way to change their immigration status, telling their public defender, who may or may not know anything about immigration law, would be a waste of time.  Those facts would have to wait until they could see an immigration judge in immigration court, probably within a detention facility after being transferred to ICE (though in immigration court, defendants are not entitled to a public defender and most cannot afford attorneys).

In trail in criminal court, first time offenders of illegal entry would be charged with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders may be charged with a felony which has a maximum sentence of 20 years of jail. By being part of Operation Streamline, the defendants do not go to trial, but plead guilty and agree to the plea agreement set forth by the government. The plea agreement drops the felony to a misdemeanor which has a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail, which I am sure is a selling point for the public defenders pushing the [easy] guilty plea.

Photo from

The defendants are picked up by Border Patrol, mostly crossing in the desert, and detained in short term custody for a few hours or a few days.  The morning of the hearing, the defendant will speak with their public defender, usually for only 20-30 minutes. Defendants that speak neither Spanish or English are dismissed (usually there are a few each day that only speak indigenous languages). 

When the hearing begins, the defendants are asked several questions as a whole group.  One hears 70 voices saying "si" or "no" when asked if they understand their right to a trial, if they understand their plea agreement.  Do you think we would hear one person say the opposite of all the others?  Do you think there would be pressure to say what everyone else is saying?

After answering questions as a large group, 6-7 defendants are called to stand in front of the judge and their public defenders stand behind them.  They are asked questions as a group, and individually.  Together they answer if they are pleading voluntarily, if they understand the charges, etc.  Individually, each must say that they are guilty as charged and they accept the plea agreement. 

Then in groups before the judge, they are sentenced.  Those who have never been deported or charged with illegal entry usually receive time served and they are transferred to ICE custody to be deported.  Those who have been deported before, receive between 30 days to 6 months in jail before being transferred to ICE.

Before Operation Streamline, migrants, if charged, would go to immigration court, which is civil, not criminal.  Illegal entry was just seen as an administrative matter--a person did not have the proper paperwork.  These cases usually led to voluntary departure and government prosecutors had more discretion to allow people to stay, arrange their documents, etc.  Now, the government wants to criminally charge migrants, but imagine putting 70 individual cases on the Tucson or Del Rio court docket each day.  How many more judges, more courtrooms, more public defenders would they need?  Instead, they came up with Operation Streamline, which allows all 70 to be tried at the same time, with one judge, in one courtroom.  Since they are being tried criminally, they each receive public defenders, but each public defender can represent 7-8 migrants in Streamline.  But the question remains:  is this the fair trail guaranteed by the U.S. constitution that every defendant has a right to, citizen or not?  Also, this criminalization of immigrants allows more and more migrants to be labeled criminals while their only crime is illegal entry, previously viewed to be about as severe as jay-walking.

I saw Streamline the first time when I visited Tucson a couple years ago, and Eric and I went again as part of our orientation with No More Deaths this summer.  On August 15, when Eric and I witnessed it, there were 62 defendants before the judge after 4 were dismissed due to language.  We had to leave early for a meeting, but in about one hour, we saw 48 people go through the process.  Of those, were 3 from Guatemala, 1 from Honduras and the rest from Mexico.  All but 3 had been deported previously and were thus threatened with a felony charge if they did not take the plea agreement.  At least 30 of the 48 had been deported this year. A couple of them had even been through the Streamline process before (So much for deterrence)! Sentencing broke down like this due to their previous records:  12 received 30 days, 10 received 60 days, 11 received 75 days, 1 received 90 days, 4 received 105 days, 1 received 120 days, 4 received 150 days, 2 received 165 days, and 3 received the maximum 180 days.  That is a lot of tax-payer paid jail time for what was until very recently seen as only an administrative error!

Our meeting after Streamline that day with with Heather Williams who is the supervisor of the public defenders office.  She seemed less than pleased with Operation Streamline, but said it is entirely out of her hands--Border Patrol and the courthouse just tell them the caseload.  Since the public defenders office had this addition of 70 cases per day, they have had to seek the assistance of many private attorneys usually paying $125 per hour.  Ms. Williams estimates that last year, just for the lawyers of Operation Streamline in Tucson, the price tag was $3.5 million.  That amount does not include money for the judges, the clerks, Border Patrol, the US Marshalls, housing the defendants, transporting the defendants, etc.  Ms. Williams joked that we could probably give the entire population of Mexico $100 per week and we would save money.

I found it really interesting that even the public defenders dislike Operation Streamline and have fought to get certain small changes made.  It appears that some of the judges are also opposed:  Lois, who accompanied our group, told us one time she witnessed a judge cry upon hearing the person story of a migrant.  The migrant apologized to this judge for his crime and the judge apologized to him saying "And I'm sorry you are not more welcome in my country."

In our No More Deaths debrief after Operation Streamline, many people shared the emotional response they felt upon seeing what we all agreed was a grave injustice.  Our reflections included:
--the stark contrast of the large, orderly courtroom with many white people milling around in suits and high heels, while the defendants were unshowered, smelly people of color
--the blatant disregard of motive
--the speed at which the judge spoke (he appeared to have the words memorized after so many recitations) and that we, mostly college educated, could barely keep up with let alone understand
--the pleasantries between the lawyers, the court marshall texting, the distinction between the everyday, bored motions of the employees in the room and this rushed hearing which is going to determine the near future of 70 people present
--taking away the right to a fair trail seems way more illegal than crossing the desert to be underpaid for jobs we don't want to do
--how completely ineffective this is
--how the sheer number of defendants, the shackles, not being able to wear clean clothes or take a shower completely strips people of their dignity and humanity and leaves them vulnerable

I really think if more people knew about Streamline, if more people witnessed it, it would be stopped.  It just seems so unconstitutional, yet it continues.  Please be a voice for the masses in these courtrooms each day.  Be a voice for those who cannot fight.

Want to read more?  Here is an ACLU Streamline Fact Sheet.  See this National Catholic Reporter article that includes very interesting quotes from one of the Streamline judges who says Streamline is "insane" and as a government, we keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.  Or this other NCR article that maybe explains the details better.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this Streamline until you mentioned it to me, but it is pretty ridiculous that they can get away with it. It really deserves more media coverage, as people so obsessed with the Constitution should surely have some cognitive dissonance aroused by this approach.

    And I can just imagine the shocking nature of mundane conversation taking place by the role players while the people await their fate.