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

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