I am traveling this week with CultureStrike, who have organized a delegation of writers, filmmakers and visual artists who have come to Arizona to take a deep dive into the effects of immigration policy. It’s thrilling to be here with so many people whose work I admire, like Maxine Hong Kingston and Jessica Hagedorn. But I’m also learning new things about immigration policy even after I’ve worked on that issue for so long.
A couple of days ago we went to the Tucson courthouse to observe a process called Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline started earlier this year to speed up the process of deporting people who have been found at or near the border having just crossed without permission. I’m going to describe the process in detail below, but the basic idea is that people who have been arrested for "entering without inspection" go through court in groups rather than singly. In exchange for pleading guilty, the migrants give up their right to a trial, agree to a shorter sentence than they would otherwise receive (up to 6 months as opposed to 2-3 years), and are deported after they serve their time.
The state of Arizona came up with this plan to deal with the high volume of migrants that have to get through their system. Proponents of Operation Streamline says it’s great for the migrants, because they get less jail time. It’s great for the city because they don’t have to overcrowd the county jail. Opponents of the program, like Isabel Garcia at Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, say that this is all "puro show." People will serve their time, be deported and bide their time until they can do it all again.
So, this is what I saw. When I walked into the courtroom, there were three sections of benches, each section with six benches. In front of the benches is a bar,
on the other side of that is another bench on which three women sit who are also facing charges. The judge is on her dais facing all these benches, in front of the state of Arizona seal. Lined up in front of her are 12 men, behind them 8 lawyers. All the men are handcuffed, and their cuffs are then chained around their waists. Their feet are shackled. Another 20 men sit, shackled and cuffed, on the benches to the far left. Twenty or so have already been processed before I walked in, so almost 70 people will be going through this process today, with similar numbers most days. Later in the day, Magistrate Bernie Velasco tells our group that his personal best is to handle about 70 cases in 25 minutes, but it can take up to 45.
I can hear the chains clinking. Most of the men, and the three women, are in their 20’s and wearing jeans and t-shirts. There’s one very tall man in the second group I watch, and he speaks almost unaccented English. They are mostly short, all Latinos or indigenous people from Mexico and Central America. Most are wearing translation headphones. The judge calls them all sir. She goes down the line asking a question, each person answers, and then she does the next question. Three rounds.
"Mr. Ramirez (then Hernandez, Lopez, Domingo, Cervantes), do you agree to a sentence of 105 (or 120, 180, time served) days imprisonment. In exchange you give up your right to appeal. Is this correct, sir." Everyone answers yes, two in English.
"Mr. Ramirez, do you understand that you have the right to a trial and do you waive that right?" Everyone answers yes, except for one man who says he wants to go to trial. He is sent to talk with his lawyer, who will explain that if he goes to trial, he will likely get a much longer sentence. If there’s a previous deportation order against him, he will likely spend more than two years in prison. He may change his mind.
"Mr, Omaru, has anyone forced you to plead guilty or made any promises to you other than what we’ve talked about here in this court?" All say no.
"Mr. Lopez, are you an alien to this country and did you enter the United States without permission?" All say yes.
Then the judge asks if anyone wants to say anything. One man says, "My mother is having surgery in less than 50 days, can I serve my term after she recovers?" Another says in Spanish, "Can I do my time near my family in California?" The tall man asks in perfect English if he can do his time near his family too. Judge asks where they are. They’re in San Antonio and Washington DC. The judge will recommend a placement near their families, but there are no guarantees. The migrants will likely serve their time in a private prison.
At the end of all this, marshalls escort this line of men out a side door, to serve their time and be deported. Two are smiling, probably out of nervousness as I can’t imagine it’s from actual good humor. Another row of 12 men rise from the benches and take their positions in front of the judge.
And that’s your view of Operation Streamline.