I heard the word “culpable” in the US Federal District Court in Tucson, Arizona during the hearings of detained migrants about 35 times yesterday. I would have heard it another 30 times if our group stayed in the courtroom for another fifteen minutes. 30 guilty pleas in 15 minutes may not sound right, but it unfortunately is: the plead of “guilty” was said about every 30 seconds in that courtroom.
Operation: Streamline is an initiative that began in 2005 under the Bush administration in an effort to create a zero tolerance policy against the undocumented crossing over of migrants from Mexico into the U.S. Every migrant who has been detained meets with a lawyer, who strongly encourages them to plead guilty, and has their hearing within one day. These hearings are en masse, where up to 70 migrants are all tried in one courtroom session: rarely do they ever plead innocent. In exchange for their cooperation of pleading guilty, their sentences typically range from 30 to 180 days.
This process with this many individuals happens every weekday in that courtroom, as well as a couple others along the southern states.
The entire process of sentencing 70+ migrants up to 6 months of prison is extremely dehumanizing. Five individuals went up to the stand all at once, handcuffed and unnecessarily shackled in three places. A man at the front of the room pointed in their faces and directed them where to go, herding them into position in front of the judge. They each wore a set of earbuds in order to hear the translator, a man with a lot of power in his words, translated what the judge said into Spanish.
“It is my understanding that everyone here today wishes to plead guilty,” said the judge at the beginning of the procedure. “Wish” probably wasn’t the correct word to use for that statement, in all honesty.
One by one the judge handed out sentence after sentence, quickly and efficiently, making sure not to take more than 30 seconds with each individual. The process sure lived up to its name though; It took the immensely complex problem of each of these migrants stories as to why they were crossing over into the states, and turned it into a simple solution of making sure they plead guilty and gave them time in prison, followed by swift deportation.
The five migrants who went up to the stand first had the privilege of getting their sentences quicker; their lawyer, who had something to tend to sooner rather than later, asked the judge if her clients could go first so she could leave early.
It struck me as a cruel irony when I took a step back to examine that. In actuality, the lawyer was asking that these individuals be sent to prison quicker so that she could tend to whatever she needed to do in order for her to go home sooner and see her family at the end of the day. I’m sure that’s what most of those migrants were trying to accomplish, too: to see their families who may already be living in the states, or to even find a new life and a new home for their families back on the other side of the border.
The irony was a bit too much for me to handle.
As our group left the courtroom, another judge who was sitting at the back of the room noticed us all leaving, and came outside to talk to us, asking if we had any questions for him. Frustrated with what we had just seen, most of us in fact did.
“It’s due process, not justice,” he told us. Though his definition of justice differed from ours, as he believed longer sentences for these undocumented migrants would have been more just. We could all agree with him when he mentioned that we need a better immigration system, however. Because a system where a migrant can be sentenced to prison within five days of being detained, but has to wait 20 years to have their paperwork processed so they can enter the states legally, is a broken system.
The whole process was hard to watch, and is definitely not justice, nor is it morally acceptable. After learning the stories of other migrants through conversations at the Comedor and through strokes in our interviews, it made watching the whole thing that much more frustrating.
I sincerely hope that one day we can fix this scam of a system that carelessly throws migrants into prison without a second thought, and do away with Operation: Streamline completely.