Assembly Line Justice for Hispanics

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)

The clanking of shackles, reminiscent of the old chain gangs of Jim Crow’s South, is the first thing I noticed when entering the William D. Browning Special Proceeding Courtroom in Tucson’s U.S. District Court. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I arrived at this second floor courtroom to bear witness to the injustice of our justice system. Quietly I sat as 64 brown men and three brown women, mostly in their teens and 20s, sat silently just a few feet away from me, filling an entire set of wooden benches reserved for the public. They were manacled individually at the wrist, waist and ankles. The defendants sat silently in the large courtroom, wearing no belts or shoelaces. Their clothes still contained reminisce of the dust from the trails they recently walked. All needed a good night sleep, a bath and a shave. They were ragged, gaunt, and broken. They sat with blank stares betraying the hopelessness of their situation. Our current immigration procedures insure that not all works for good for those called by God’s name.

Throughout their judicial proceedings, I heard the constant clanking of chains. Chains clanged as they shifted positions in their seats. Chains chinked as they attempted to scratch their nose. Chains clattered as they rose to stand before the bench. This haunting and disturbing sound continued to ring in my ears even as I tried to sleep that evening.

These 67 brown bodies were charged with “illegal entry,” a federal petty offense that legally is a lesser charge than a misdemeanor. I asked Heather Williams, then supervisor of the Federal Public Defender Office for the District of Arizona, what would be an equivalent criminal act for a U.S. citizen to commit? After some thought, she responded with “shoving someone on federal land with the intent to shove.” Most of us would simply receive a warning or a ticket, but these individuals must go through this elaborate performance of “justice” so that a very few can profit off their misery.

Prior to their trial, they were held in a converted military base, which never was intended to function as a prison. Not surprisingly, there were no beds (just benches), forcing most to sleep on concrete floors, with only a few receiving blankets. The water fountain did little to quench the thirst of those who recently attempted to cross the desert, and the lack of cooking facilities at the base offered little nourishment. If they were carrying any medicine, it was confiscated, placing several (i.e., diabetics) at grave risk. Few ever received their possession back, for even the clothes off their backs were taken away. The wealthiest nation ever known to humanity steals the meager possessions from the world’s dispossessed. According to newspaper accounts, a few have even died while in detention for not having access to their meds – a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.

Prior to the hearing, the court-assigned attorney met with the defendants, usually in groups, to explain complex legal procedures in a few minutes, procedures that took me (a fluent English speaker with a doctorate) almost half a day to comprehend. The defendants are presented with the government’s plea bargain. Plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve up to six months in jail or, if they are lucky, get immediately deported. Plead not guilty and face a possible sentence between two to twenty years in prison, depending on one’s criminal record. The exploration of possible grounds for asylum or derivative citizenship (having a parental citizen connection) was usually skipped or misunderstood during these huddles. Since the consultation occurred in the same courtroom where all the defendants would be convicted – in the presence of court officials, border patrol personnel and U.S. marshals – the attorney-client privilege was violated.

On this day, there were ten defense attorneys in the courtroom representing about seven migrants each. For their full day of service (morning consultation and afternoon conviction) they were paid $125 an hour. Tucson pays $3 million a year just to reimburse these attorneys, according to Federal Public Defender Williams. Similar trials as the one I witnessed occur all five days of the week. Hundreds of thousands go through this judicial procedure, a fairly new phenomenon known as Operation Streamline – a departure from the previous “catch and release” policy.

Prior to 2005, those who entered the country without proper documentation were not prosecuted; they simply were deported. Operation Streamline mandates that the undocumented, caught crossing the border, be prosecuted through the criminal justice system. An elaborate legal procedure has been created ensuring that before the undocumented migrant is deported, a criminal record is established; thus preventing them from ever qualifying to enter the country legally. Creating a judicial procedure for violators of immigration policies has been a boon for the private prison industry. Leveling criminal charges has funneled immigrants directly into the federal prison system. Once sentenced, defendants are handed over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons who in turn place these undocumented immigrants in for-profit prisons that are operated by either the Correction Corporation of America or the GEO Group. In Texas alone, over $1.2 billion has been infused into the for-profit detention system. No wonder these for-profit corporations, since 1989, funneled more than $10 million to political candidates and have spent almost $25 million on lobbying efforts. These efforts ensure the writing of state and federal laws that requires imprisonment for the undocumented. This broken system cannot be fixed, for if it is, these for-profit prisons would lose billions in federal monies.

The amount of profits to be made has these corporations building detention centers that can now house the whole family – mothers and children. On December 2014, a for-profit detention facility was opened in Dilley, Texas with the capacity of housing  2,400 mothers and their children. We are a nation that has infants and children behind bars! Unprecedented rates of undocumented border-crossers are incarcerated; overburdening the federal criminal justice system; and providing tremendous revenues to the for-profit private prison industry at an enormous financial cost to the American taxpayer. Latina/os, who represents about 16 percent of the population, now comprise the majority of all people in federal prison, thanks to Operation Streamline. Of course, not every migrant caught crossing the border experiences Operation Streamline. An undocumented number are simply deported without any trial, raising concerns of number manipulation to demonstrate fewer convictions (hence incorrectly associating these numbers with fewer immigrants crossing), which falsely justifies that militarizing the border since 1994 is indeed working.

Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Marshall for the district of Arizona was presiding on this particular day.  The shackled defendants stood before the judge in groups. When asked how they plead, in unison they said “Culpable,” Spanish for guilty. On this day, all pleaded guilty, as do 99.9 percent of all who ever go through Operation Streamline. They were charged, tried, entered a plea, convicted and sentenced in groups of five. I took out a stopwatch to time how “efficient” justice en masse works. I timed it at 1 minute and 44.2 seconds or about 20.4 seconds per person, raising grave concerns about due process as enshrined in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. For some, this brand of justice is a game. Take for example Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco who bragged, “My record is 30 minutes,” to describe the speed to trial and convict seventy migrants. I cannot help but wonder if what I have just witnessed was some type of kangaroo court procedure one would expect to see in a nation lacking basic freedoms, where court proceedings mask injustice but nevertheless serve as an important veneer of legality for the outside world community.

About 40 of the defendants were charged with a misdemeanor because this was their second attempt to enter the United States. They each received some sentence time, usually longer than a month. To house one of them, according to Federal Public Defender Williams, costs taxpayers $2,000 a month – more than the approximately $850 a year we spend to educate a child in our public schools; thus showing where our treasures lie.

Housing all 40 convicted on this day would cost $80,000. Realizing that this procedure is repeated each day, taxpayers can expect to spend $1.6 million a month for just the Tucson district. Multiply this by all the federal districts on the U.S.-Mexico border and we are talking about a billion-dollar industry. In Arizona alone, a Warren Institute study calculated the annual for Operation Streamline to be $120 million in court procedures and about $50 million for detention and incarceration. Besides the monetary cost, the study “demonstrates that Operation Streamline diverts crucial law enforcement resources away from fighting violent crime along the border, fails to effectively reduce undocumented immigration, and violates the U.S. Constitution.”

Regardless of one’s views on immigration, Operation Streamline is problematic because it violates basic human rights, making a mockery of the implied fairness of our judicial system. For those who are concerned about the cost of government, how we process immigrants is definitely not cost effective. Federal Public Defender Williams made it clear to me (and to the House Judiciary Committee when she testified before Congress), that “Operation Streamline may well be one of the least successful, but most costly and time-consuming ways of discouraging entries and re-entries.” Surely, we can find a more equitable way to live up to our rhetoric “and justice for all.”

Miguel A. De La Torre

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