By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Our policy can be stated in five words,” says Dr. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “‘Spend more on border enforcement.’”
A lot more. The $20 million awarded to Boeing to build those nine model towers was but a small piece of the $860 million granted to the defense giant to provide enhanced border-security infrastructure — all that going ahead even after the Department of Homeland Security admitted in late April that those first nine towers had failed and were being shut down. Add to that some $2 billion that will be spent on building 700 miles of fence — that, in turn, will cover only 30 percent of the U.S.’s southern border. Millions in additional money is earmarked to more than quadruple the size of the Border Patrol from the 3,500 agents it fielded 20 years ago. And then there’s the fleet of unarmed drones, the upgraded vehicle barriers, sensors, scopes and remote cameras, as well as the eventual chain of some 1,800 surveillance towers that will stretch from San Diego to Brownsville.
“None of this makes any difference,” says Cornelius, a world-class demographer who meticulously tracks migration patterns. “Toughened border enforcement doesn’t keep undocumented migrants out of the United States. All it does is raise the prices charged by the smugglers.”
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Rough road ahead: The Sonoran Desert
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Hope's trail: Walking to the USA
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Rest stop: The Samaritans' Mary Goethals, center, gives comfort and aid to two migrants; the woman at right is four months' pregnant.
Not only do 45 percent of illegal aliens living here enter legally and simply overstay their visas, but those who jump the border on foot are not deterred by more punitive measures. Cornelius cites a study he conducted of a so-called “active sender community” in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they considered crossing the border “very dangerous,” and 24 percent claimed to know someone who had died trying. But no significant number said that knowledge would keep them from trying to cross. “The success rate of those trying to get across was 98 percent in 1995,” says Cornelius. “And in 2005 to 2007, it was still 98 percent.”
On any afternoon of the week, in the cavernous special-hearings chamber of the federal court in Tucson, it’s possible to witness one of the more absurd, and pointless, immigration-enforcement efforts of the Bush administration. With so many migrants pushing across the border nightly, the prevailing policy has been to catch and release first-time offenders. Even those who have been apprehended a half-dozen times or more are generally fingerprinted and photographed at a Border Patrol station and then, a mere few hours later, after signing a “voluntary departure” agreement, dumped back across the Mexican border.
Now a pilot program, started two years ago in Texas, with the aim of prosecuting and jailing those nabbed at the border, is being tried in Arizona. The federal government calls it Operation Streamline. Defense attorneys and policy critics call it an outrageous travesty of American justice.
Just after lunchtime on a recent Thursday, 42 dark-skinned men — almost all Mexicans, a few of them Central Americans; some middle-aged but most of them in their 20s or younger — are ushered en masse into the Tucson courtroom. Bound in shackles and chains, unshowered and hair uncombed, dressed in the same dark clothes in which they were apprehended and under the armed guard of two green-uniformed Border Patrol agents, they are all seated on the courtroom’s left side. The headphones they are offered so that they can hear the simultaneous translation give the whole spectacle a touch-of-Nuremberg feel.
The defendants shout out “¡Presente!” as their names are called by a clerk. After the roll call is taken, defense attorneys — most of them court-appointed and a sprinkle of federal defenders — immediately stand to correct the misspellings of several names.
“Do all of you understand your petty offense carries a maximum penalty of 180 days?” asks the judge, who does little to hide his absolute boredom with the whole affair.
“¡Si!” say the seated defendants in unison.
“You all understand that you have the right to plead innocent and the right to a trial?” asks the judge.
“There’s a right to call witnesses.”
“You understand you have the right to remain silent?”
And then comes the core of what is, indeed, a streamlined exercise in jurisprudence, if not justice itself. “Have you all decided to waive your right to a trial?” the judge asks, with no suspense in his voice.
“¡Si!”answers the handcuffed mass.
“Has anyone forced you or coerced you to enter your plea?”
“No!” the defendants shout back.
Next, each defendant is called upon to stand, and each one pleads “culpable” — guilty — to the charge of illegal entry into the U.S. In groups of five and six, they are then summoned forward by the judge for sentencing. A few defendants with prior criminal records in the U. S. are sentenced to a couple of weeks or longer in jail. But nobody else — and this is where the real charade begins.
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