Tag Archives: injustice

Operation Streamline: inefficient and ineffective

Two weeks ago, there was a lot about migration across the U.S.-Mexico border that I was unaware of. After spending two weeks on the border, I understand more, but I realize there is still so much more to learn.

Operation Streamline is one such concept I was ignorant of. Operation Streamline began in 2005 under the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. It requires almost all undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to be prosecuted through the federal justice system.

Last week, we had the opportunity to witness just this. Inside the federal courthouse in Tucson, we sat in the back of the large courtroom, notebooks in hand.

Roughly 70 migrants with handcuffs shackling their wrists, and a chain snaking around their torso, continuing down to their feet. Headphones cupped their ears, as a means for them to hear the Spanish translation of what the judge said. They looked scared, confused. As I watched them, I felt awkward. Knowing if I were a defendant, about to stand up in front of a crowded courtroom to plead guilty, I would be so humiliated and angered to have strangers watching me.

Five at a time, the migrants walked forward to be prosecuted. To each migrant the judge rattled off questions: Do you understand the rights you’re giving up? Yes. How do you plead? Guilty. Do you understand the consequences of pleading guilty? Yes. Are you a U.S. citizen? No. Are you pleading voluntarily and of your own free will? Yes.

In the U.S., each first-time offender is prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry and a six-month maximum sentence. Those who have tried crossing previously, are prosecuted with felony reentry and given a two-year maximum sentence, which can be more if the migrant has a criminal record.

I was unaware that this happened at all, and shocked to discover it happens every day of the week. Here were my main takeaways after witnessing Operation Streamline and doing some research.

Operation Streamline:

  • Deters the attention of lawmakers away from fighting violence on the border. Law enforcement must focus on the prosecution of migrants who have entered illegally for the first time. Meanwhile, drug smuggling and human trafficking is occurring at the border.
  • Fails at reducing undocumented immigration. Petty immigration prosecutions are increasing, while the number of migrants attempting to cross the border is declining.
  • Is unconstitutional. Migrants are not given due process. Many defendants don’t receive probable cause determinations within 48 hours of their warrantless arrests, as the Fourth Amendment requires (see attacked article below).

After we walked out of the courtroom, a Magistrate Judge who was off duty followed us out and asked if we wanted to talk about what we had just witnessed. After answering a lot of our questions, it was obvious that he too was frustrated with the current system.

“Everyone wants to be tough on crime. No one talks about being just in crime,” he said.

He encouraged each of us to reach out to our state congressmen, voicing our concern with the process. I hope to do just that, as well as educate others that this injustice is occurring. For a more thorough explanation of Operation Streamline, I strongly encourage you to checkout Berkeley Law School’s review of the system.

Streamlined Through the Justice System

Operation Streamline. Every thing  you need to know about this state sanctioned program is in the name. It’s all about efficiency. Essentially Operation Streamline works to efficiently process and convict undocumented migrants. It requires that states utilizing Streamline charge undocumented workers with a federal crime in order to deter others from crossing the border.

At its worst Streamline is a massive violation of human rights, at its best it’s a drain on the federal system and a waste of taxpayer money. After watching a Streamline court session I feel like it’s closer to a violation of human rights than anything else.

As our group sits in the courtroom, we look at the 50 or more people sitting in front of us waiting for their chance plead guilty. They’re shackled at the waist, arms, and feet despite committing a non-violent offense. The judge reads off their rights as a group while a translator quietly communicates the judge’s words in Spanish through a headset given to each charged person. Then they are called up in groups of five, with their lawyers, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor so that the federal court will drop the felony charge. It’s systematic. The judge doesn’t ask anyone why they chose to cross and no one provides an answer. Before you know it the group of five has been sentenced and are walking out in their shackles.

Photo courtesy of freerangestock.com. We weren't allowed to take pictures during the court session but the chain in the picture seems accurate as a representation of the removal of due process.
Photo courtesy of freerangestock.com. We weren’t allowed to take pictures during the court session but the chain in the picture seems to be an accurate representation of the removal of due process.

The idea that something so quick and concise counts as due process is ludicrous. A truly just system would recognize that prosecuting people for trying to make a better life for themselves is a surface level response. It doesn’t deal with the question of why. Why are people migrating? Why are people claiming asylum? Why is there such systemic violence in these countries?

There is no simple answer to any one of these questions. If it were really as simple as the left or right make it, then immigration issues would have been solved years ago. The problem with issues like immigration is that they’re multifaceted. They contain dimensions far more complex than what Streamline addresses, which is why it’s such an ineffective practice. Leaving large groups of people with criminal records for the crime of pursuing a better life is a failure of the U.S. justice system.

The good news is that several states have already eliminated Streamline and the remaining states will follow suit with enough pressure. It is therefore our duty to raise our voices in protest of unjust laws and operations like Streamline.

Operation: Streamline

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 district court that we went to in Tucson, AZ to see Operation: Streamline take place
The district court that we went to in Tucson, AZ to see Operation: Streamline take place

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