Operation Streamline

The first group of eight people went up to the judge. A few lawyers for all 70 detainees stood behind them and translated as the judge declared them guilty of illegal entry to the United States. I tried hard to make out the words coming from the judge’s mouth as he hurriedly mumbled the sentences, making the formalities of the court seem solely that, formalities. However, despite the traditional and formal demeanor of the court — a judge sitting up on a higher stand, formal attire, lawyers, guards, court rules — there was nothing legitimate about this court.

Maybe the fact that I knew that each of the 70 individuals had at most twenty minutes with one of the six lawyers provided for all of them influenced my view of this court session. The reality is that the lawyers have 20 minutes to complete an impossible task.

They have to attempt to overcome language barriers, dealing with a client who possibly has not slept or had a real meal in days, been dehydrated in the desert, and may have experienced any number of traumatic experiences when crossing the dangerous desert. They had 20 minutes, as a lawyer of this court said, to attempt to explain what a misdemeanor is, what a felony is, and all the information that somebody who is not familiar with legal procedures in this country would need in order to make a fully conscientious decision in court. The legal advice was mostly the same for everybody: Sign the Misdemeanor Plea, this way you will serve less time “because nobody ever wins immigration cases” and “if you have been caught before you will avoid being charged with a felony.”  By the end of the court session, the judge will have sentenced every single one of the 70 men and women to jail time.

They all replied with either “Si”,”Si su señoria”,”Yes, sir” or “Yes, your honor” to being guilty and taking the misdemeanor charge as well as 60 to 180 days of jail time and then deportation. This rapid process took five minutes, then they were dismissed and in the 10 feet journey to the door the now “criminals” thanked their lawyers and attempted to shake hands, obviously with visible difficulty because their hands were cuffed and the cuffs were attached to a shackle hugging their waist. This exact same process was repeated approximately seven more times and the results  were 70 people expedited in approximately 30 minutes.

This is Operation Streamline:  fast and effective, a true factory of criminals. I was observing the commodification of 70 poor and brown people with my own eyes.

We had been warned about the harshness of the process. The first groups seem to be mostly Mexican and Hondurans. As a Honduran, my heart was painfully stung every time I heard a name and following it “citizen of Honduras.” And as an American as well (dual citizenship) I was embarrassed, disappointed, but most of all, utterly disgusted.

The longer I was in that court, the faster the judge was reading the sentences and the less I could breathe. After seeing the first group go by, I thought I’d be fine, and I thought I’d hold my tears in. But the injustice was so evident.  It filled the air in that damp room and choked me.

I knew these defendants although I might have never met them personally. I know generally the circumstances that forced this journey. It is not unusual for laborers in the fields and Maquiladoras to earn about $5 after a full day of work. It has become common for teachers not to receive pay for a year of work. And these conditions have been a reality for years because any efforts for social economic improvement are violently repressed by our government and military, historically known to be trained in the United States School of the Americas. Never in my wildest dreams would I consider any of these people criminals.  Those who live comfortable safe lives on this side of the “border” often forget that they seek the services of these hard-working people who care for children and the elderly, paint homes, construct houses, do beautiful landscaping, and simply seek a living wage . I want to ask those who accuse and charge them with names like aliens, criminals, alien criminals if they have ever faced the necessity of walking days in the desert exposed to all kinds of deadly dangers in order to reunite with their loved ones?  Have they ever been unable to feed their loved ones?

After the trial that judge told us, the group of observers, if we didn’t like what we were seeing to not complain to him, “I don’t make these laws, go out there and talk to your senator and vote for politicians who will implement the laws you want. You’re wasting your time here.” Surely, we do need to talk to our senators and get involved politically so that dehumanizing processes like Operation Streamline are terminated.

However, this thorn of injustice goes deeper than Operation Streamline. This thorn is called racism and exploitation and has a long history in the Americas. Such a long history indeed, that it is now embedded in our cultures, and the fact that we have laws, such Arizona’s SB 1070 that persecute people for being brown, or looking indigenous, mean little to nothing to our society.

It is easy for us to be pleased with the system when it works well for us, when we are ignorant of the difficulties it creates for others. An observer at the court asked the judge if any efforts were being made to help political refugees from Honduras, and he responded: “I don’t know anything about Honduras.” And added he doubts that the people at Streamline are political refugees because they are probably farmers and some of them illiterate and probably have not participated in political demonstrations. I think this statement would shock and rejected by anybody who has lived in Latin America or somehow been involved with it’s political histories.

Laborers have always been actively involved in politically economic social movement.  Considering the judge’s constant contact with Mexicans and Central Americans I’d think he at least would have some curiosity about peoples lives or the histories of their countries.  Just from the Aguan area in Honduras, 56 farmers and active members of  La Resistencia, the rising pacific social movement against the Military and Political Coup in Honduras, have been murdered since 2009.

Every American with any sense of morality or good or equality will lose sleep over the fact that our border is a war zone , where deaths occur on a regular basis and never make any headline, and for the fact that we pay tax money for families to be separated. Every person who proudly calls himself or herself American,  should question what exactly makes one more American than another that was brought here as a baby, raised in our neighborhoods, studied in our schools and had a legitimate job? For not having citizenship papers they are now on the list of Homeland Security. They suddenly become a national threat.

It is 2013, and we are massively incarcerating hundreds of brown men and women. I ponder the evil that infest our societies. How do we get to the point of exploiting, wasting other’s lives, in order for us to meet our greedy and selfish desires?

I believe there is a high profit incentive behind it. And it is not a coincidence that dark-skinned Hispanic and Indigenous people being targeted. To be completely honest, I believe immigrants are the easiest most vulnerable people to incarcerate. The United States has determined that the moment one steps foot in their border, he or she is a criminal alien without constitutional rights. No Miranda Rights for you, no right to a lawyer. The business of prisons has noticed this vulnerability and exploits, making billions of dollars out of the lives of the poorest of the poor.

Sitting at that bench in the Tucson Courthouse, I questioned law itself. I questioned why had I ever entertained the idea of being a lawyer if you have to play by bad rules, and if immigration procedures and rules contradict each other. As Jason Haan, a former attorney of Operation Streamline describes it: “Operation Streamlines turns lawyers into puppets.”

Even though there is no current evidence that Operation Streamline is serving its purpose of deterring illegal immigration, on the contrary, the numbers of re-entry cases (decreed as felonies) is increasing, the new immigration reform plans to triple the number of people prosecuted in Operation Streamline. Hence, tripling the cost of the process, which according to the DOJ incarceration costs alone for Operation Streamline add up to between $7 and $10 million a month, that is discounting all other Court and deportation expenses.

It is my hope that more honest discussions can be carried out about current immigration policies and programs like Operation Streamline. I hope someday we can reach solutions that don’t involve border militarization and immigrant criminalization that so far have proven to “make the poor poorer, and the rich richer” as well as an increase in the violence of the border.

Today is September 15th, many people in Mexico and Central America celebrate their Independence day. Nonetheless, more importantly there is also a hope for a new Independence. A new economic, military and  political independence from the United States.

– Martha Sanchez


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