"We have rights under the Constitution that must be kept meaningful...migration should not be a criminal act!" said long-time immigration rights advocate Isabel Garcia to a group of people at the skirts of the Evo A. DeConcini Federal Courthouse.
"It is shameful that we treat people this way, that we jail them...migration is at an all time high, we are making migrants the international criminals," she told the crowd. And how are we doing this? "...[with U.S.] policies that promote migration, whether it's [the North American Free Trade Agreement], our war on drugs, whether it is [U.S.] intervention in El Salvador..."
It has been exactly 10 years since the criminal immigration proceedings known as Operation Streamline came into effect. To mark its "anniversary," immigration rights and prison reform advocates, as well as religious leaders, have been participating in a series of protests that began on Dec. 9. This Monday, local clergy interrupted Operation Streamline proceedings by reading scriptures from the Bible and praying. Other U.S.-Mexico border communities have also been making noise during this "week of action."
Earlier today outside the federal courthouse downtown, the group End Streamline Coalition—which Garcia is a member of—put together a theater skit, with the help of Borderlands Theater, depicting what goes on within Operation Streamline: who benefits and who loses.
The proceedings began in Del Rio, Texas on Dec. 16, 2005, and it made its way to Tucson three years later.
In Tucson, up to 70 migrants apprehended on this side of the border appear in court and, according to immigration rights groups, many if not most plead guilty to illegal entry or re-entry after deportation—both federal crimes—during a mass hearing with limited legal representation, without understanding the consequences of the "guilty" plea. Appearances last no more than two hours, defendants are shackled at their wrists, waits and ankles, and are sentenced to everything between 30 and 180 days in prison. After being released, migrants are deported with a longstanding criminal record, and "severely damaged chances of ever being able to return to the United States with valid immigration status," according to the End Streamline Coalition.
(Clarification added after publication: Migrants technically have the option of pleading "not guilty," just like in any other criminal proceedings. But many, if not most, of them plead "guilty," because that is what their legal counsel advises them to do. Defense attorneys spend at the most 30 minutes with a defendant. As of Thursday, Dec. 17 at 10:35 a.m., the wording on this post has been updated to clarify concerns that migrants are not given the option to plead "not guilty.")
The organization says that thanks to Operation Streamline, about half of the people prosecuted in federal court nationwide this year, as well as last year, were there for crossing the border.
Between 2006 and 2011, the U.S. has reportedly spent more than $5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants, and the two prison companies that have financially benefited the most are Corrections Corporation of American and the GEO Group, Inc., which have solid partnerships with federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to immigration rights activists.
A 2014 article by The Washington Post says Operation Streamline supporters find the proceedings "efficient and humane."
Since the defendants are generally accused of reentering the United States after being deported at least once — a potential felony — the plea deals in the Streamline court get them reduced charges and less jail time than they otherwise might receive.Many politicians like U.S. Sen. John McCain support Operation Streamline, because they feel it is a tool to deter immigrants from coming to the U.S. However, several reports, including one by the UA's Department of Latin American Studies, points out that these proceedings may have no impact in the mass migration coming from regions, such as Mexico and Central America..."Because Operation Streamline never understood the desperation of poverty, and that people will risk everything for their families and for their children to be together," Southside Presbyterian Church's John Fife told the crowd outside the courthouse. "[Operation Streamline] is a violation of human rights and basic concepts of justice in this country. It is a colossal waste of tax payer money and it does not work."
“The system is working well and the system is fair,” Judge Bernardo Velasco, who presides over Streamline cases here, said in an interview. “When you enter illegally you’re a criminal. You may not be a big criminal, but you’re a criminal. You can say ‘these poor people’ and all this other stuff, but they’re still criminals.”
Matthew Lowen, associate program director of the prison reform group American Friends Service Committee, was also disturbed by the obscene amounts of money being made at the expense of locking up tens of thousands of migrants a year. "Meanwhile, business from private prisons is blooming," he said. "These companies are making bank...10 years too many, 10 years of family separation, 10 years of injustice, 10 years of profiting off incarceration...End Operation Streamline and immigration criminal prosecutions. Shut it down."
Operation Streamline happens Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. Advocacy groups are trying to encourage people to witness it themselves.