StreamlinedPosted: February 27, 2013
The following piece is a reflection on our group’s trip to visit Operation Streamline, a mass court proceeding that takes place daily in Tucson in which roughly 70 undocumented migrants at once are sentenced to the misdemeanor of Illegal Entry. These people, most of whom were apprehended by the Border Patrol during their journey through the Sonoran desert, are jailed for 30-180 days and then deported.
The first place they will take you is to a Border Patrol detention. Males and females will be separated into different cells. You will be given crackers and juice and zero tolerance. Maybe you have been walking for days, perhaps you have been traveling for months and this is just the beginning of another very long day. Long days are to be expected when months of legal process are crunched into a twelve hours in a mass trial like the one you are about to endure.
From detention, you will be transported to the Marshall service. You will be permitted to bring only one set of clothes. Everything else will be left behind: backpack, cell phone, contact information, identification, medication. They might pretend that losing your ID was a mistake – at least, that is what their PR reps will say, but either way they will try to make you nameless, nobody, now.
Forget the bail hearing. Forget the pre-trial hearing. Actually, forget about the court trial altogether. Today you will have three hours to meet with the public defender you are sharing with five other people, nine to noon to get the whole lowdown. You see, you’ve been charged with a felony. A misdemeanor and a felony, actually, a two-for-one deal in this seventy-for-one trial, but the good news, you’ll see, is that there’s a plea: they’ll drop the felony, drop the court fee, if you plead guilty to the crime of Illegal Entry.
Here’s the deal: you’re a Repeat Offender with a Criminal Record of a previous illegal entry and deportation. You’ve been here before, they sent you back, and they’re not happy to see you again. Illegal Entry is a misdemeanor, but Illegal Reentry After Deportation is serious business felony charges and now that you mention it, what else is on your record? A DUI in your file could get you ten years today; theft or arson or trafficking or murder or sexual assault or crimes of violence or an Aggravated Felony of any kind and you’re looking at twenty. So you see, you’ll really want to be accepting that guilty plea.
The deal they will give you is this: They will drop any fines and the felony charge, give you a mere 30 to 180 days, if you plea guilty to the misdemeanor and waive the right to appeal your case and to have a court trial. If you want to measure your time in days instead of years, you don’t have much of a choice. Either way, you are more than likely to be deported at the end.
You will be seated on a long wooden bench in a wide courtroom with seventy other migrants. The room will be large, off-white, windowless, and echoey, so the sound of clanking handcuffs never completely fades. There will be wide-open double-doors through which are pouring the visitors who have come to watch the show – observers of your humiliation, witnesses to the throngs of brown bodies on trial. There is another door on the other side of the room.
The first thing the judge will do is take attendance.
And on and on. Seventy numbers, seventy names, seventy men (and maybe a woman or two). Everyone is present.
Next, the judge will give you a chance to change your plea, to speak to your lawyer, to do any desperate, last-minute things you might wish to do before the main act begins. You will be advised that this charge will be always on your record, you will be told about the years in prison you will serve if you are ever caught again. You will be read your rights. And now that that is all out of the way, it’s time to get down to it.
This is how the script goes:
The judge will now call to the bench eight of the lawyers and eight of you. The lawyers will be addressed first: Are the clients pleading voluntarily? Do they understand the charges against them, their rights, their penalties?
“Yes, your honor.”
The felony is dismissed, no fine imposed, and the defendants will receive credit for time served. Having confirmed the the illegality of their presence, the judge will deal the sentences: 75 days for this man, 30 for that one, and 180 for him over there. Clank, clank. The men are led away through the door on the side of the room. The script restarts. Eight more names, eight more lawyers.
“Is any of you being forced to plead guilty today?”