OPERATION STREAMLINE: Human Beings, the “Justice” System, and the Economy in Action

The Magistrate sits up high on the bench in his black robe, peering over his glasses at the bottles of hand sanitizer lining the tables before him. Lawyers sit sternly in their ironed suits. US Marshals and Border Patrol agents stand in their blue and green uniforms at the doors and in the aisles. In the moments before the trial, they elbow one another, joking. For them, this is a familiar event, a daily proceeding to which they have become accustomed—and many of them appear nonchalant, even bored.

For the 70 recently apprehended migrants in the room, the situation is not so familiar, or so non-consequential. Filling more than a third of the seats in the courtroom, they sit handcuffed with chains around their waists. Many of them are still wearing the camo they must have sported on their journey through the desert. They are almost all men, one woman. From Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador. From a long journey that has brought them to lethal heat and short-term facility floors and courtroom chains.

From the other side of the room, we scan their many faces, aware that the men we met in Altar may well be among them. I don’t recognize anyone, but I hear from Rosalva later that she found a familiar face.

What we are seeing, a public defender has told us, is not just a court proceeding; it is “the economy in action.” And in the scene before us, we can indeed see the stark human reality of the First World “making use” of the Third—the clean ritual dance by which that “use” is legitimized and justified. Operation Streamline allegedly functions under the logic of “deterrence.” First implemented in Texas in 2005, it is known as a “zero-tolerance” policy, which treats undocumented border-crossing as a crime, and undocumented crossers as criminals. Rather than undergoing civil deportation proceedings, they are forced instead through the federal criminal justice system and into US prisons. First-time crossers may be punishable by up to 6 months, and those who have re-entered after deportation may be prosecuted for felonies, facing up to 20 years. In addition, these convictions almost guarantee future exclusion from all legal pathways to migration and citizenship.

The idea is that this risk of punishment will prevent—“deter”—migrants from coming. But this idea is wrong. Like other aspects of US immigration policy—the installation of a new wall, the increasing militarization of the border—Operation Streamline fails to acknowledge the realities of poverty and violence that the US actively continues to help foster in the nations to our south. Many of those making the journey north come out of necessity, out of the human drive to survive, and to care for those whom they love.

What is “streamlined” in this operation, then, has nothing to do with deterrence, security, or justice. What is streamlined is the flow of human beings from the impoverished economies south of the border to US detention facilities to US courtrooms to US private prisons. The prisons, and the US justice system that fills them, can be seen as the other side of the human trafficking industry. Through Operation Streamline, migrants are practically handed from coyote to Border Patrol Agent to Magistrate to the Corrections Corporation of America. Each step of the way, someone is making money—from the mafiosos running cartels to US officials to prison industry executives. Since Operation Streamline was first implemented in Arizona in 2008, the public defender explains, the US Marshal budget for the area has increased by $2 million, the state has contracted lawyers making $750 a day, and CCA has had 7500 new prison beds installed. The treatment of migrants as “aliens” and “criminals” has gone hand in hand with their treatment as commodities. “The economy in action” looks like human beings in chains.

In the windowless courtroom, we can only guess at the lives, histories, and relationships, the hopes and the fears, that are in our presence. While most criminal proceedings in this country last up to several months, Streamline proceedings take place over the course of a single day. In Tucson, 70 migrants are tried en masse within less than two hours. In the course of today’s rapid proceeding, we find out almost nothing about the individual migrants being tried—their stories or the details of their apprehensions.

It takes me a special effort to see them as individuals in this context, amidst the crowd of chains and translation-headphones and hand sanitizer. They are seated together, addressed together, and asked to speak together, called up in groups of eight to make their pleas, which have been predetermined. “Are you entering this plea voluntarily and by your own free will?” the judge asks in a tired monotone that can only come from excessive repetition—“compassion fatigue,” the public defender calls it.

“Sí,” the men respond in unison. The meanings of “voluntary” and “free will”—along with the meanings of “due process” and “rights”—have been stretched thin.

– submitted by Irene Milsom

Ambos Lados: Reflections from Altar & Nogales

This weekend as a party of sixteen (all of us students, our instructors, Rosalva Fuentes our housing coordinator/community organizer wonder woman, and a good friend of one of our instructors), we climbed into our white vans and took a two-day trip to Altar and Nogales in the state of Sonora Mexico. In about 72 hours, we toured the Nogales Border Patrol station, then crossed the border and visited the Kino Border Initiative, an organization that functions as a political action group and shelter for recently deported women. From there, we traveled further into the interior of Mexico, to Altar, Sonora. In Altar, we stayed at CCAYMN (Centro Comunitario de Atencion al Migrante y Necesitado), a migrant shelter that offers help to migrants traveling in both directions from the border. The next morning, we explored the central area of Altar, and visited a casa de huespedes. From Altar, we made a quick stop in Magdalena de Kino. From there we drove back to Nogales, first visiting a community organization called HEPAC (Hogar de Esperanza y Paz). From HEPAC, we went to our final destination, Colonia Flores Magon, a community in Nogales. In Flores Magon, we visited and stayed with local families, sharing meals and conversations with them. The next morning, we piled into our white vans, and drove back to el otro lado. Below I tried to sketch out, at least a little, to experience this trip and the many border narratives that we were given.

The trip really started as we pulled up to the Nogales Border Patrol station. By the end of our two hour tour, which included a weapons demonstration, I felt drained and shaken. I’d never seen a real gun before, but what really made an impression on me was the narrative of the Border Patrol that we were presented with. One of the most prevalent threads of this narrative was that of victim-hood. Our first stop on the tour was a conference room where with almost no introduction we were shown a video depicting “rocking,” which is the official Border Patrol term for when people on the “south side” throw rocks over the wall at agents. Our tour guide pointed out two large rocks sitting on the table in front of us, asking us to pass them around and asking whether we would ever respond to law enforcement “like that.” Again and again, we were told that all these officers just wanted to get home to their families, and it was impressed upon us that all violence was connected to self-defense, or heroism. In response to a question about the use deadly force, one of our tour guides described a scenario wherein we (as female officers) were faced with the threat of a big, imposing man attacking us. She challenged us, asked if we could “take him,” if we would use deadly force. She used the underlying threat of sexual violence, a very real experience for countless migrating women and girls, as a method of justification for state violence. The Border Patrol’s narrative is undoubtedly one of loudest coming from the borderlands, and the idea of victimization is only one piece of it. I think, though, that it was the piece that spoke loudest to me as our tour guides led us down hallways evading questions about detainment facilities and the use of deadly force.

From the Border Patrol station, we crossed and visited the Kino Border Initiative. The Kino Border Initiative is an organization, run primarily by Catholic nuns, that functions both as a site of political activism, and also as a comedor, shelter, and resource center for recently deported women. The hermanas (nuns) who we spoke with talked about their journeys to this work, as well as the various services that the center provides, including short-term shelter, basic medical care and referrals to clinics as well as other migrant aid resources, women’s empowerment work, and policy work. It amazed me to know how much was being done from within one small space, especially in response to all the state and interpersonal violence that exists surrounding the realities of the border and migration. We were also privileged enough to hear the stories of the two young women currently living at Kino. There is a great deal of privilege that exists in the exchange of stories, not only the privilege that we as Border Studies students received in hearing these stories, but in the realities of where we bring them, as we freely cross back and forth. Because of this I don’t feel comfortable sharing the stories of these young women, or any other migrants we were lucky enough to speak with. It was an emotional experience, the receiving of two lived stories from two women with their own relationships and conceptions of the border. It was heavy, and I held it in my back pocket (not literally of course), with an even heavier set of questions attached. How could I hold, and respectfully understand the gift of these lived stories? And how can I understand these narratives in the light of the last space we occupied?

These questions stayed with me for the remainder of our trip. From there we traveled south to Altar. Altar was once a city with a massive immigration economy. It was once, one of the most frequented staging areas/spaces of migration. While it is no longer an extremely trafficked area of migration, there is still a significant presence of migration related economy, including a presence of polleros and coyotes. While we were able to explore the central area of the city the next day, we initially visited and stayed at CCAYMN, a migrant shelter and comedor that offers, in addition to food and rest, assistance and information for migrants moving in both directions in relation to the border. Also run by nuns, the center is a safe space for migrants in the sometimes dangerous city of Altar. CCAYMN is also a very politicized place. The walls inside and out are hung with the names of those who have lost their lives in the desert. It was in space that we were lucky enough to shake hands with, say grace with, eat food and tables with, and share stories with the men who were at that time staying in the shelter. In much the same way as with the women we spoke to in Nogales, I felt at a loss for how to correctly, respectfully listen and receive these lived stories. What did it even mean, I thought, that I was hearing them? The next day, when we traveled back to Nogales, and stayed with host families in Colonia Flores Magon, I felt this as well. A sense that my current understanding of the border was woefully incomplete, but also a sense of fear that in trying to build a new understanding I might misuse or colonize the lived stories, the narratives that I was privileged to soak for those two days. Interwoven with this, was the question of how the Border Patrol narrative can exist in the same space as these, quieter (quieted) narratives of the border. This of course, is my analysis two days out, with a clearer head. I’m sure in any one of these spaces, my immediate thoughts had a few less commas and parentheses.

Right now, as I am curled up comfortably en este lado, trying to create a synthesis of this trip, it’s easier for me to understand what it meant for me, and how that made me feel. When I was in it, when I was still trying to make sense of Border Patrol while I struggled with my Spanish speaking to a man at CCAYMN or taking notes in a presentation while I thought about what it means that I am in the borderlands, or any of the other challenging spaces I found myself in, I couldn’t quite get there. It took me a few days to get there, to get that all this dissonance, and heaviness, all those challenging spaces, they all connect. Specifically, they all connect to narrative, to storytelling, to speaking the border. I’m getting a bit flowery even for myself right here, so I’m going to try and speak this as plainly as I can. By virtue of my social location and my global north citizenship, I came to this program with a pretty clear image of the border. So much of this image was built through reading, through speaking, through anger––it was an intentional construction project. But, a whole bunch of it was fed to me, whispered to me, and soaked up as a person living in a securitized state, and told that borders are for my protection. So, I came to Tucson with this, my own conception of the border, and didn’t really listen when Jeff, one of our instructors, told us that a lot of Border Studies was about unlearning. Our trip to Altar and Nogales was an emotional and powerful experience, and I’ve got to say that I didn’t come away with any earthshaking conclusions, but I did come away understanding that in order to figure what I’m doing here, I’ve got to start tearing down the old border in my head and build a new one, one that resists tokenizing, that respectfully receives the gift of a shared, lived story, that doesn’t survive on intellectualism alone, and that actively rejects the voices and narratives that justify violence. Above I tried to sketch out, at least a little, what some of these border voices meant to me in this respect.

– submitted by Sophie Christenberry