Operation Streamline

On Friday February 21 we headed to downtown Tucson to a non-descript gray building, the federal courthouse, to witness Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline is a criminal proceeding, which, every day, turns 70 migrants into criminals, forced to serve jail time for attempting to cross the border into the United States. Private industry and prisons make lots of money off of these proceedings, but it has not been shown to deter people from crossing the border, one of the justifications for its existence. Although we had read a bit about the history of Operation Streamline and some detailed accounts of what goes on in a hidden courtroom on the second floor, nothing could prepare me for one of the heaviest things I have witnessed in the borderlands.

I cannot adequately describe Operation Streamline in written language. It was already clear to me that justice does not exist in the US. Witnessing Operation Streamline offered more evidence of the unjustifiable and arguably unconstitutional practices that happen every day, stripping individuals of their humanity. Depressing, sad, confusing, angering, horrific, awful, inhumane…none of these words can replace the sight of 70 brown bodies in chains, largely in cloths worn crossing the desert, all personal items stripped from them. While witnessing the proceedings, I tried to see each migrant as an individual with a face and a name and a home and a history and a context and a family, all of which is ignored, suppressed and denied for the sake of the “security” of the US. What is presented to the audience are 70 largely expressionless faces, headphones in to hear the Spanish translation, backs to the “audience.” The courtroom is silent save the almost constant clatter of chains. The only occupants of the space are us, lawyers dressed in suits and high-heels (suffice it to say many are old white men), the magistrate, the marshals and perhaps a few others. After opening comments 70 individuals are asked the same mechanical questions to which they answer “si” (yes) or “no,” and “culpable” (guilty). Occasionally a question is asked, or a concern raised. One man has an arm dislocated by border patrol. Another suffers extreme dehydration. Another has a serious heart condition and has left his medication in the desert. They are told to tell the medical examiner when they get to prison, as if prisons have ever provided proper medical care. Another man asks to not be returned to immigration. Some answer immediately. Some pause before responding. In the space of several hours 75 individuals plead guilty to entering the US illegally and are sentenced to up to 6 months in prison before they are deported.

Through this process beautiful, respectable human beings are reduced to ghosts or the faceless, nameless “criminal” or “alien.” There is one man there who several of us spoke to in Altar, Mexico. Towards the end, two young women are called up who are indigenous and not fluent in Spanish. Little effort is made to ensure they understand what is going on. Their lawyer, a large white man, towers over them. The magistrate treats them like babies, admonishing them for crossing the desert, telling them they were lucky they didn’t die, asking them what their mother’s would think. At the end their lawyer offhandedly says to us “they cried at just the right time haha.” And then the proceedings close.

I think I will be processing for many months or years what I saw here, what to think, and how to respond. Who/what is to blame and who/what should or can I direct my anger or disgust at? How am I, a white, female, healthy US citizen implicated in these proceedings? What is my responsibility having born witness? The facts are clear, as laid out by readings and our talk with a Federal Public Defender who we talked with for a few hours before witnessing the proceedings. This lawyer discussed the history of Operation Streamline and her thoughts about what is behind it.  She also talked about her place within it, giving me a lot to think about concerning her role in the system and her argument that people calling for public defenders to step down and not play a part in Operation Streamline is actually harming the cause, and that it is important to have decent public defenders who speak Spanish involved. It is clear who the primary beneficiaries of this spectacle are: the local economy, private corporations, prisons and the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), among many others. The impulse to stand up and interrupt proceedings, to shout, to throw something, are suppressed while sitting motionlessly on the wooden benches. While we were there, I was thinking back to Simon Sedillo and his idea that we are in a “prison of peace and tranquility.” How are we to break down the walls of this “prison”? Operation Streamline put many pieces to together for me, linking what we saw in Arivaca, at the Border Patrol Station and at the migrant shelter in Altar. It adds one more face to the journey of migrant realities.

Operation Streamline highlights many of the themes, trends and realities we have been learning about. The real power in the US, private corporations, are implicated here. Operation Streamline is part of the capitalist enterprise. It’s about money, the migrants are commodities. Another theme here is the creation of the “other,” the “criminal,” and the “alien.” I think the construction of these identities and labels facilitates Operation Streamline, hides it, and makes it palatable for much of the public at large. The discussion with the public defender added complexity and highlights the different worldviews and ways of understanding the system and one’s place within it. I believe that the public defender was arguing for reform from within the system. She made a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” or more humane vs. less  humane public defenders. Although it is difficult for me, after witnessing the proceedings, to not see her as part of the system or machine, facilitating what is Operation Streamline, she is a respectable human being with certain opinions and I do want to put serious thought into what she says considering she has been operating from within the system for awhile. This all relates back to the question of what social change is, or should be, from where change can come, and what sorts of jobs and activities may strengthen the system they are trying to combat. Operation Streamline and the public defender’s role also highlight the limits of law and ways it can be bent to serve powerful interests.

I do not think I will forget the faces I saw today, especially the last two young women around my age. I want to try to not let the memory of the individuals in chains I saw today be relegated to the memory of ghosts. I want to further consider my place within or against this system and want to remember that this is a reality that has been happening and may very well continue to happen every day for months and years.

— contributed by Sylvia Woodmansee


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