Witnessing the practice

The following is a re-post from Peg Bowden’s blog EverybodyEatsNews and describes her visit to the Evo A. Deconcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson, AZ to witness Operation Streamline:

The courtroom is large. The benches look like church pews. As I enter the space, I notice that the left side of the room is filled with brown faces all seated on the hard benches, and on the right side are small groups of predominately white men in uniform milling about. Fifty-seven migrants sit quietly and stoically on those benches. All are Latino. They are dressed in t-shirts and dusty jeans and look like they have been in the desert for days. Their belts and shoelaces have been removed. There are two female migrants who sit separately from the men. All are in shackles—their hands attached to a chain around their waist, with feet manacled at the ankles. I watch as a migrant tries to drink water from a paper cup. It is impossible to drink without bending over at the waist and precariously ingesting the water against gravity. The water spills down the young man’s t-shirt as he tries to take a sip. When they stand, some of them have difficulty keeping their pants up without a belt. I am embarrassed to watch this and quickly look away.

All eyes are on our little group of six as we enter the courtroom and are told where to sit, which is on the far right side of the room. The looks from the migrants are beseeching, searching, as if we might be family or a friend? There are a few smiles from the migrants. I smile back, tentatively, not quite knowing how to behave in this setting where justice presides.

One fellow has on baggy “skater” shorts and a silky soccer t-shirt. He looks like a California dude, and is heavier and larger than any other migrant. He grins at our group and gives us a little wave.

The men in uniform on the right side of the room are Border Patrol officers and U.S. Marshals. The atmosphere is one of laughing, joking, a feeling of business as usual and easy camaraderie. Several are playing with their Blackberries.

On the left there is silence as the migrant defendants stare into their lap or vacantly straight ahead. I notice that one of the lawyers and a Border Patrol officer are also Latino, and it occurs to me that they are the only Hispanics in the room that are not in shackles. The majority of migrants look young—in their teens, 20′s or early 30′s. All have earphones which are translation devices so they can understand the court proceedings which are in English. They each have a federal public defender who has spent the morning with their assigned cases—usually about six migrants per lawyer.

An attorney friend who works a day each week doing Operation Streamline cases has told me that these are perhaps “the nicest people that I defend. Their only crime is crossing the border to find work.” My friend is supportive of the migrant’s plight, and gives me insight into the proceedings of this streamlined form of justice. He doesn’t approve of the cookie-cutter approach to Streamline, but is as supportive and informative to the migrants as he can be. It is a tough job. I have to say that I am impressed with all of the attorneys that day. They take their job seriously and do their best to be fair and just and supportive of their clients.

Walking the wall to the comedor

When the judge enters, we all stand.  The judge is a woman, the Honorable Jacqueline Marshall. As she takes roll call with each migrant, she pronounces every name correctly in Spanish. She is patient and empathetic with each person. I am impressed with her demeanor and her caring, coupled with her objectivity as a judge.

One fellow does not know his birth date, and she speaks with him about his best guess regarding his age. He decides he is “maybe nineteen.” Another fellow states his birthplace as Guatemala, when it is actually in Chiapas, Mexico. It turns out that Chiapas was part of Guatemala 180 years ago, and was annexed by Mexico. This man’s family has never accepted the change. This business of borders exists far beyond our own.

The migrants are called to the bench in groups of six. Their bony frames are hunched over from the weight of the leg irons and manacles. The clanging of the metal irons and the shuffling to the front of the room is a sight I will never forget. I think about drawings of African slaves in this country two hundred years ago.

Considering the Next Step at the Comedor

Each migrant is asked:

“Are you a citizen of Mexico (or Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) and did you enter into the U.S. illegally?”


“Are you being forced to plead guilty?”


“Have you spent time discussing your situation with your lawyer?”


After several more questions, the judge asks:

“How do you plead?”

“Culpable,” or “guilty,” rings out in the room, one by one.

The California skater dude says, “Guilty”, and tells the judge that he was visiting extended family in Mexico and was trying to get back home to Tucson when he was detained in Nogales. He speaks perfect English. He looks like a high school kid.

Each migrant is given the opportunity to speak. The day I was in court, no one did. All know that by pleading guilty, they will get back to Mexico quicker. They have been advised by their lawyers well. The migrants have the right to a trial by jury if they wish to plead “not guilty”, but this means weeks in a prison or detention center awaiting trial, and the probability that they will be deported anyway. Not much of a choice.

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