Operation StreamlinePosted: September 30, 2013
In the federal courthouse downtown, the first thing we meet through the glass doors is security. We take off shoes, belts, sweaters, bags, empty our pockets. There was no body scanner, only a metal detector, but otherwise the process was the same as in a US airport. When we were all through, we took the elevator to the third floor and entered the courtroom through doors on the back wall immediately opposite the magistrate’s bench. Well it’s called “the bench” but it is really a large cushy chair behind a large sharp desk. What is really a bench is what almost everyone else in the room was sitting on–our group and a dozen other observers in the back right; public defenders in the center, maybe a dozen of them too; and seventy people, all brown, mostly men, sitting on the left and overflowing the benches into where a jury would otherwise be seated, and a handful of women, sitting in the center section near the public defenders. All of them chained at the ankles and at the wrists, and their wrists chained to their waists. There were a number of US court marshalls in navy blue jackets and border patrol agents in their dark green standing at the doors and in the aisles. There was another door along the right wall just in front of where our section ended.
At 1:30pm, the presiding judge entered, we all rose, we all sat, and it began, a whirlwind. The judge called up eight people, and as their names were called so were the names of the public defenders who were “defending” them that day. Two public defenders who spoke to us earlier in the day, told us about the process that morning. From 9am to noon, the seventy migrants slated for Streamline that day come to this very courtroom, where they meet the public defender the court has appointed them. In Tucson, the lawyers are assigned three to six clients, and have just these three hours to meet with each of them, to explain the charges against them, to explain their rights within the system, to ascertain that their clients have a full understanding of all of these things, and to present them with the decision they must make–of pleading guilty, which will drop their felony charge to a misdemeanor and land them with a six month maximum sentence before deportation, or of choosing to go to trial, in which they would almost certainly lose, gain a felony conviction, face up to twenty years in prison, and then be deported anyway. If the lawyers have not been able to thoroughly meet with and have these conversations with all of their clients by noon, too bad because that’s all the time they get.
So, the judge called up the first eight migrants and their lawyers. Starting with the first person and then moving down the line, he said this:
“(Person’s name), do you understand these rights, do you waive them, do you enter a plea of guilty knowing that you will be sentence to (number 30-180) days?”
Judge: “(Sir or Ma’am) are you a citizen of (country) and on September (day) near (city) entered a time and place otherwise designated?”
“(Number 30-180) days.”
And he moved onto the next person in the row, same script, different fillers. The countries the seventy people were from were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. The cities I heard most frequently where people had been caught by Border Patrol were Douglas NM, Sasabe AZ, Nogales AZ, Naco AZ. Everyone had been caught within the last few days.
After the judge issued the sentence to the last of the eight people (sentences varied from 30 to 180 days, depending on individuals’ records, and averaged maybe around 70 days), he said “Waive the financial assessments, dismiss the felonies,” and the eight people were marched out the door on the right of the courtroom, just in front of where we sat. Their lawyers returned to their seats. The judge was already calling up the next group. The scene repeated itself. The sound of chains never faded. The entire process—the misdemeanor conviction and sentencing of seventy people—took half an hour. Around 2pm the gavel fell, the lawyers filed out, the judge came down the aisle followed by several US marshalls, and pushing through the gate into the audience section where we sat he said, “So what do you want to know?” He said this casually, like he is practiced and even bored with this whole process, and with this Q&A session after, a self-imposed duty.
There are a ton of constitutional arguments against Streamline. Some of them are that there is no due process, that defendants are not being addressed individually to determine whether they fully understand the rights that they are giving up and are pleading voluntarily, that attorney-client confidentiality goes out the window in that single courtroom morning session, and that defendants’ initial court appearances are often delayed. We read an article in which the public defender with whom we met, was asked why she continues to do this work, given Streamline’s blatant injustice. Her answer: “We’re all parasites. But there’s something to bearing witness. If I don’t do this, the reality is that somebody else will be in there getting $110 an hour who doesn’t care.”
Sitting there in the corner of the courtroom and watching Streamline happen in front of me, I felt like I was coming to see a show. I felt disgusted by my gaze, I felt extremely uncomfortable with my position in the proceedings. But what the public defender said about witnessing—that’s what my role is, that’s why we were in that room that day. As a group, we’ve been talking a lot about reciprocity and privilege and study abroad programs and our program. And a lot of these topics have converged in questions of how we enter into communities that aren’t ours, homes and families and networks that aren’t ours, and what does it mean for us to “learn” from these spaces and these lives, and how can we do this in ways that aren’t just one-sided or exploitative from our side, but are respectful and reciprocal. Sometimes, reciprocity is possible. Sometimes we can give directly when we receive. Sometimes we can’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. In some cases, what we can do is witness, and use that experience actively as a tool. Before this semester, I had never heard of Operation Streamline. Neither had many of the other students on this program. Neither had many of our host families. Neither had many of my friends. This is happening everyday in US federal courts in certain zones along the US/Mexico border. That morning, the public defender said to us, “If it can happen in this federal courthouse, where people fight for civil rights, it can happen anywhere. You have people in Iowa being torn out of meat-packing factories. The border is not just here, the border is everywhere. And we have to stop the dimunition of these rights and the dilution of what they mean. And we have to say no, we are not going to allow it. And it starts with having these conversations with people.” Yes my gaze that day was uncomfortable, yes there are issues with my gaze and my presence and the space I take up and we take up as a group, and yes it is imperative that we are constantly conscious and critical of those things. Also, we can use these things as tools, we can bear witness, we can bring what we learn out of that windowless room where it is being kept and I can write this post about what we saw and we can have these conversations and fight in these ways.