Grinding Justice 

Operation Streamline Costs Millions, Tramples the Constitution, Treats Migrants Like Cattle, and Doesn't Work

Thursday, Oct 28 2010

Page 3 of 10

But that explanation fails to account for how the Border Patrol neatly delivers 70 bodies a day to the Tucson court — 30 percent of whom are reentry cases and 70 percent of whom are first-timers.

Why not prosecute 70 migrants who have been removed previously? That query makes Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco wonder. Velasco is one of the seven federal magistrates in Tucson who hear Streamline cases on a rotating basis.

"[Prosecuting] multiple offenders," says Velasco, "would seem to suggest that we have limited resources and [that] we're going to use our limited resources against multiple offenders. That kind of makes sense. But [the Border Patrol] has chosen not to do that. They think prosecuting first offenders is effective."

click to flip through (6) ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER


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Kenneth Quillin, a Border Patrol spokesman in Yuma, says his agency believes Streamline has helped it gain "operational control" over the Yuma sector, because migrants now know there are consequences for crossing illegally.

"I think word got down to would-be crossers," says Quillin, "that if you were to cross in this area, you're going to at least, one, get a charge and, two, spend a little time in jail."

Whether that analysis is accurate, it's interesting to observe the contrast between the Streamline proceedings in Tucson's 414,000-square-foot, glass-and-flagstone Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse and those that transpire in Yuma's modest, post-office-size federal court.

Although all magistrates handle the Streamline proceedings differently, Judge Velasco may have the speediest judicial delivery among his colleagues.

Indeed, when Velasco's on the bench in the Special Proceedings Courtroom, where Tucson's daily Streamline hearings take place, the veteran magistrate burns through 70 defendants in just under 40 minutes.

During that time, he advises them of their rights, takes their pleas, sentences them — anywhere from time served to 180 days in custody — and has them out the door and on their way back to Mexico, to other parts of Latin America, or to a prison run by CCA.

"I wouldn't say it's pretty," says the blunt Velasco after one Streamline hearing. "But I don't know of anywhere where it says things should be pretty."

Some Tucson magistrates take an hour and a half or more to get through these en masse hearings. But when Velasco's running things, defense lawyers joke that they don't bother to sit down between clients, as they'll be back up on their feet in no time.

Velasco dispenses with the men and women in his court in seven-person bursts. The defendants before him are dressed in the dirty, sweaty clothes they were captured in, their hands shackled to their waists, their ankles in fetters.

They look weary and morose. They have not had baths or showers after several days in the desert, and the funk from this forced lack of hygiene pervades the courtroom. Indeed, the wall nearest to where the remainder of the defendants are still seated is blackened with the dirt from countless bodies.

Beside each defendant in front of Velasco is a lawyer, often a private attorney hired by the court for $125 an hour under the provisions of the U.S. Criminal Justice Act, which guarantees counsel to the indigent. Some are represented by salaried federal public defenders. Each lawyer has four to six clients in a day's Streamline lineup.

Velasco runs through a series of questions relayed to each migrant with the rapidity of an auctioneer, mumbling as he goes, head down.

Individually, he asks them compound questions, translated into Spanish by an interpreter and transmitted to them via headphones: Do you understand your rights and waive them to plead guilty? Are you a citizen of Mexico (or Guatemala or El Salvador), and on such-and-such a date near such-and such a town, did you enter the United States illegally?

The answers never vary: "."

Then he asks them, as a group, whether anyone has coerced them into a plea of guilty. "No," the chorus replies.

Again, they're asked, as a group, whether they are pleading guilty voluntarily because they are in fact guilty. The chorus cries, "."

First-timers receive time served for the petty offense of illegal entry.

Those charged with illegal reentry, a felony, plead guilty to the lesser offense of illegal entry and get anywhere from 30 to 180 days.

In Yuma, Magistrate Judge Jay Irwin plays tortoise to Judge Velasco's hare. By comparison, Irwin's courtroom pace is leisurely, almost plodding. On one summer Monday afternoon, the Streamline hearing involves 23 men and takes about an hour and 48 minutes to complete.

There is one lawyer for all 23 men. Federal public defender Matthew Johnson says he's handled up to 50 defendants by himself in one day.

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