Author: Sofia Vargas
In March 2016, ten fellow Georgetown students and I embarked on a week-long Alternative Spring Break trip to the U.S. southern border in Arizona. During our trip, we attended an Operation Streamline hearing at the Ninth Circuit Court of Tucson where, in under an hour, we witnessed over 60 people being sentenced to jail time for having illegally entered the United States. Operation Streamline began in 2005 as an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice under which undocumented migrants face criminal prosecution and prison time, as well as deportation, as a consequence of illegal entry or re-entry into the United States. Operation Streamline has been heavily criticized and is a process that many advocates, lawyers, and even judges resent having to work through.
The men and women we saw being prosecuted were all in handcuffs and shackles during the entirety of the hearing, and they were called up in groups of about seven people at a time to plead their cases. Most of the attorneys present were defending multiple people at once. According to Judge Jacqueline Rateau who presided at the hearing that day, attorneys only get about half an hour in the morning to explain the cases to their clients before pleading the cases in the afternoon. Coupled with the fact that detainees have little to no working knowledge of the American legal system, and many do not speak English, an overwhelming majority of detainees are left with little choice but to plead guilty and spend time in detention. Judge Rateau described Operation Streamline as “a monster that is still with us,” despite the years of backlash it has received. Amanda Sakuma of MSNBC explains immigration proceedings under Operation Streamline as “[running] more like a conveyor belt than a courtroom.”
The mere nature of these proceedings calls into question whether or not migrants are getting the due process they deserve under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. But unfortunately, immigration courts are so constrained with resources and backlogged with cases that improving the legal process for immigrants is a long-term task. LAWG and partners continue to advocate for due process and access to legal representation for all adult and child migrants. As we seek to address the root causes of migration, our own immigration system needs to be reformed to be able to treat those who arrive out our border justly and with dignity.
This article is an excerpt from the blog Stories from the Border: How a Week of Immersion Can Affect Future Policy and originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Advocate, LAWG’s biannual newsletter. Download a PDF of the issue here.