In late January/early February a class I was enrolled in discussed attending Operation Streamline at 405 W. Congress Street. It is an expedited “zero-tolerance” approach to prosecute individuals who are caught crossing the border. This process takes place Monday-Friday beginning at 1:30 p.m. As a native Tucsonan, I was not aware of this practice that is used in Tucson, Arizona, Del Rio, Texas, and Laredo, Texas to prosecute “illegal immigrants” caught crossing into the United States along the U.S.-Mexico Border. This practice has been going on for the past several years and I had no idea that this is occurring in my community until a few months ago. Although Operation Streamline is currently active in three cities, it was previously active in eight cities, including the three currently active. Based on conversations I have had, several community members are also not aware of this practice.
I did not know what to expect. My peers who had attended Operation Streamline described a traumatic experience and had shed tears. When I walked to the second floor of the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse located in Tucson’s historic downtown area, the first thing I noticed as I got off the elevator were the several pictures of the judges on the wall. It would be difficult for anyone to miss them since they are perfectly centered in the middle of the hallway. All of them had a major commonality; their skin color was white. There were no judges who had skin color or features of being a “minority.” Another commonality is that all of the pictured judges were male. There were not any female judges pictured in this particular courthouse on this floor.
Directly under the pictures was a gathering of lawyers who were waiting to enter the courtroom. They were speaking of random topics and gave off the impression like they were there for an easy paycheck. The reason I feel that they were there for an easy paycheck is because they were not interested in any of the process. I’m going to fast-forward a little here; they showed up, stood next to their assigned defendant or defendants and called it a day in this aspect. I observed only one lawyer speaking with, what seemed to be, relatives of one of the defendants.
To the right of the pictures of the white men on the wall was an office with a star that says, “U.S. Marshall.” In the office was a young girl. She looked as if she was approximately 4 or 5 years old. She was wearing a purple long-sleeve shirt and pink pants and had a plastic bag in her hand. She was not with an adult and it did not seem like anyone was supervising her—there were chairs in the waiting area where she was. She was entertaining herself by walking back and forth in the small area and was well behaved. I wondered if she was the daughter of one of the defendants. Was she also caught crossing? Was she also going to have a damaged reputation and title attached to her for the rest of her life?
When our group was finally allowed in the courtroom (we waited well after 1:30 p.m. to be allowed in), two men had just received a dismissal of their charges. Since we were not in the courtroom at the time, I am unsure as to what their charges were or if they were a part of Operation Streamline. As we were walking in, the two men were walking to the “holding room.” I automatically began analyzing the setup of the courtroom. Two women were sitting away from the approximately forty men in the middle of the courtroom facing the judge. All of the defendants were wearing headsets and a translator sat to the left of the judge. The defendants were very calm, yet looked very fearful as to what would happen next. Like Monroya (1994) says, “A feeling of being onstage is frequently experienced as being acutely aware of one’s word, affect, tone of voice, movements, and gestures because they seem out of sync with what one is feeling and thinking.” They were all, literally, on stage and any little movement could have been a life or death situation.
The defendants were able to hear what was being translated; however, from what I have heard from translators and those who have listened to the headsets is that some of the translations are not accurate. The judge very quickly went through his motions of reading each of the defendants their charges and options. Their options were to either accept the charge of a misdemeanor that day and have a certain amount of days in jail (depending on their plea) or go to trial and possibly face a felony charge with a possibility of facing years in prison. The main charge each of the defendants was accused of was entering the United States at an unauthorized port of entry. Not all the defendants were from Mexico; there were a few from Honduras and Guatemala. I could not help but think that if they had made it this far, they would attempt to cross the border again.
The sentences that were imposed ranged from five days to one hundred fifty days. One of the male defendants asked if he could have his sentence reduced since he has an infant daughter and he needs to have an income to support her. The judge denied his request stating that the defendant agreed to serve one hundred fifty days in his plea agreement. He stated he could revoke his plea and send him to trial but would face the possibility of a longer sentence. The defendant agreed to the original plea. It seems as though the defendants are not sure what they are agreeing to. It has been said that the lawyers tell the defendants to accept the plea without attempting to argue the charges or a reduced sentence. While they are not being charged with a felony, they are still not aware of the terms or aware that they may negotiate. Another man stated that he lost contact with his 16-year-old son who was also in the process of “crossing.” He stated he wanted someone to try to get in contact with him to let him know that he was caught. I am not sure if I would have wanted to share that information since that could also put his son at risk of being deported.
While I understand that those who break the laws should be held accountable, I do not believe that this process is the route to go. If it were as effective as people claim it is, it would be enacted in all Border States and would be widely known. Operation Streamline has been widely scrutinized due to its exclusion of due process and dehumanizing treatment. Many people are unaware of this process, likely due to the scrutiny it would cause, and it prevents the accused from being aware of the rights that they do have. As Haney Lopez (2000) states “Race should be used as a lens through which to view Latinos/as in order to focus our attention on the experiences of racial oppression’s long-term effects on the day-to-day conditions endured by Latino/a communities.” More people should be aware of this process and become more vocal of the dehumanizing processes that are occurring in our own community.
Haney Lopez, I. (2000). Race and erasure: The salience of race to Latinos/as. La Raza Journal. 57, 479-487.
Monroya, M. E. (1994). Mascaras, trenzas, y grenas. Chicano-Latino Law Review.