By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For each group, the judge asks the federal prosecutors for their recommendation. And the prosecutors routinely ask for a minimum of 10 days in jail. The judge, however, is barely listening. His mind is already made up. As soon as the prosecutors finish speaking, the judge taps his gavel and simply says, “Time served.”
In most cases, the migrants have been held for 48 hours. Now they are set free. Or, more precisely, they are loaded onto a government-chartered bus and driven for an hour to the border, across which they are booted. In any case, it’s no additional jail time. It’s catch, hold in a bucket, and then release.
“The goal of this program isn’t really to stop illegal immigration,” says one disgusted Arizona judge who hears these Operation Streamline cases. “It’s just about moving the flow to our east or our west. People come here to eat, and they are going to keep coming here. Our government says it’s building a virtual fence. The problem is, Mexico isn’t sending in virtual Mexicans.”
Currently, the federal authorities in Tucson are prosecuting 50 migrants a day. Though the system can’t handle even that amount, and though virtually no one goes to jail, the goal is to get to 100 prosecutions per day by the end of the year. And the Department of Homeland Security says it wants sentences of 30 days as an effective deterrent.
“The courts don’t have the capacity, there aren’t enough beds and there isn’t enough money,” says UCSD’s Cornelius. “To make this happen, you’d need to build a virtual gulag of concentration camps in the Southwest.”
There hardly seems any threat of that scenario, as the mere 50 prosecutions a day have all but broken the court system in Tucson already. There aren’t enough holding cells. The probation office has had to vacate the courthouse to make room for additional detainees. The U. S. Marshals Service doesn’t have enough agents to guard them and is paying a private contractor at least $18,000 a week to help out. And even the Department of Justice doesn’t have enough federal prosecutors for the extra load. The five prosecutors whose pleas for jail time get dismissed every afternoon in the Tucson court are on-loan U.S. Border Patrol attorneys with no real trial experience. The federal defender provides two defense lawyers per session. But the court has to hire as many as 14 private attorneys a day to go through every motion.
“I am the most impotent person in this whole system,” says Tucson’s First Assistant Federal Defender, Heather Williams. In her modest offices a few blocks from the courthouse, she offers an Inconvenient Truth–class PowerPoint on the “baffling complexities” of federal immigration-prosecution policy. But she uses a game-show analogy to describe the rather stark simplicity of Operation Streamline. “Think of it as Deal or No Deal,” Williams says. “Twenty-four hours after their arrest, a federal defender gets a total of 20 minutes per client. This isn’t justice. It’s rubber-stamping. Most of these people have walked two or three days through the desert. Some are dehydrated. They haven’t slept, they’re in a borderline mental condition, there’s no bail, and you’re sitting at a table with them where they have 20 minutes to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives.”
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Gimme shelter: A Guatemalan family at one of the "hospedajes" in the Mexican border town of Altar
“How would you feel,” Williams continues, “if you went to Mexico, got arrested, didn’t speak the language and had only 20 minutes to talk to an attorney you don’t know and who tells you to plead guilty?”
One Border Patrol spokesman defended the program to local reporters but also seemed to unwittingly buttress the arguments made by the disgusted judge who claimed that Operation Streamline is ineffective in stopping the migrant flow. “The biggest bang for our buck is deterrence,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jesus Rodriguez. “It’s sending a message that if you get caught, you’re going to get prosecuted; so you’re not going to try it.”
But Rodriguez then added: “Some of these folks are no longer coming back into this area. They’re going out to other sectors.” In other words, the flow — as usual — is only being diverted elsewhere.
While the Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security continue to pressure Arizona to accelerate its enforcement crackdowns, the state itself might be having second thoughts. There’s some speculation that Operation Streamline — instead of being expanded — might be quietly rolled back in the next few months. At the same time, legislators are now searching for politically palatable ways to undo the mess created by a recent state law that imposes the use of a computerized worker-verification system and exposes employers to the loss of their business licenses if they hire an illegal alien.