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Operation Streamline: An immigration nightmare for Arizona courts

Instead of being deported immediately, immigrants are first turned into criminals and put behind bars in an approach critics call "assembly-line justice."
Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, Jan. 28, 2014.
Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, Jan. 28, 2014. Migrants like Alejandro, who is already plotting his return, are meant to be discouraged by the special courts known as Operation Streamline, but the resulting mass deportations have led to accusations of assembly-line justice.

TUCSON, Arizona -- Immigration proceedings here run more like a conveyor belt than a courtroom. Every weekday, 70 migrants fill up the rows and jury seats of the courthouse. They are bound by shackles at their ankles and wrists.

The air in courtroom is thick. Many defendants haven’t showered since they were arrested for trying to cross the border illegally. Their clothes are dusty from the Arizona desert that reaches temperatures over 100 degrees this time of year. It’s not even summer yet.

In groups of eight, the defendants -- mostly young men -- are made to stand before a judge. They are forced to walk with a limp, heavy from the weight of the binds at their feet.

“It’s sad as hell,” said defense attorney Cheryl Blum. “It’s offensive to the eyes.”

When Operation Streamline was first introduced in Tucson in 2008, it gave the busiest corridor of border arrests an industrial-strength solution to processing deportation cases. In a departure from the traditional "catch and release" approach toward immigrants which led to almost automatic deportations, Operation Streamline  added an extra layer of criminal convictions and jail time to deter people from ever trying to enter the U.S. again. 

Years later, the courthouse has become a factory, just barely able to keep up with the demand. Lawmakers now want those operations to triple. Meanwhile, the costs are mounting beyond just the funds needed to run at maximum capacity, with an additional human toll of what critics are calling “assembly-line justice.”

Defense attorneys meet their clients for the first time just hours before the hearing each day. They take on as many as six cases at a time, but no more, and spend less than 30 minutes with their clients to get their backgrounds, explain the charges and determine whether to go to trial. When time’s up, most all advise their clients to plead guilty to the charge of illegal entry.

“We do the very best we can with a very flawed, awful system,” Blum said.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office can only afford to send a representative once a week, leaving a panel of private lawyers, paid more than $100 an hour by the government, to pick up the slack. A rotating group of judges overseeing the proceedings in Tucson approach the the program in different ways. One once bragged of setting a personal record by sentencing a room of 70 people in under 30 minutes.

Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake have long championed Operation Streamline as a success story. The Border Patrol says the program not only imposes new consequences for the crime of illegal entry, but also “ensures consequences are upheld to the full extent of the law.”  Funding for the program was even tripled in the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year. If passed bythe House, the bill would ramp up prosecutions in Tucson to 210 in a single day.

The effort is part of a broad policy shift on border enforcement to impose stiff consequences for those who attempt to cross the border illegally and to target people with criminal records as a priority for deportations. The Congressional Research Service estimates that half of all immigrants facing criminal charges along the border are put through Operation Streamline. Roughly 208,939 people were processed through the program  in 2012. In Tucson alone, more than 74,000 immigrants have been pulled into the program since it began.

Some have hard criminal rap sheets: assault, felony assault in the U.S. For most, however, this is their second or third time caught trying to cross the border after previously being deported -- a potential felony offense. Operation Streamline gives defendants a plea deal allowing them to admit guilt to less serious charges in exchange for dropping the felony. Sentences run from 30 days to six months in jails, detention centers or private prisons. Few defendants refuse the deal.

“No individual defendant can afford to challenge the system,” federal public defender Eric Marsteller said. Migrants who opt out of the plea agreement face uncertain outcomes of a trial that could slog on for months. Often, Marsteller said, the risks don’t outweigh the chance for due process.

Inside the courtroom here, Pedro Ledesma-Flores begged for forgiveness. After admitting that he gave a false name to officials -- his real name is Pedro Diaz-Reyes -- he says he only tried to enter the U.S. to find work. This isn’t the first time he has tried to cross the border, and it likely won’t be the last. 

"If people are desperate, they’re going to risk it. And they do it over and over again. And of course they do – their kids are here."'

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for coming to this country,” he told the court through an interpreter, pleading guilty to entering the U.S. illegally. “I have three kids who are born in Ohio. I need to support my kids.” 

The judge sentenced him to 180 days behind bars, but he can serve out the term in Ohio, near his family. After that, it’s back to Mexico.

“If people are desperate, they’re going to risk it. And they do it over and over again,” Blum said. “And of course they do -- their kids are here.”


Operation Streamline began in 2005 under President George W. Bush when the Del Rio sector in Texas saw a rise of arrests along the border. Historically, Border Patrol agents sent back those caught trying to cross the border, only to see them boomerang back later on for a second or third time. The new program allowed for expedited prosecutions meant to deter immigrants from repeating their illicit journeys into the U.S.

By 2008 the program expanded to Tucson, which until recently was home to the busiest of all Border Patrol sectors for undocumented immigrant arrests. In its early days, the program went after minor offenses, including people caught trying to cross the border illegally for the first time.

“There was a time in Tucson when they were taking pleas en masse,” said the University of Arizona’s Jessie Finch, who has been researching Operation Streamline. Instead of asking each defendant individually how they would plead, Finch said the courtroom would ring out in a chorus of “culpable,” meaning “guilty” in Spanish.

Since then, policy shifts and court challenges prompted incremental adjustments to an already maxed out system. Overloaded defense attorneys fought to reduce their caseloads. Deputy Marshals attempted to reach the program’s goal of processing at least 100 defendants per day, but hit constraints -- there weren’t enough cells in the courthouse to detain that many. The Federal Public Defender’s Office had to dramatically scale back involvement to send the one public defender per week.

Former Tucson Public Defender Heather Williams warned Congress of the potential problems with the program shortly after it was launched in Arizona, saying there were a number of concerns whether the benefits outweighed the costs.

“Operation Streamline may well be one of the least successful, but most costly and time-consuming ways of discouraging entries and re-entries,” Williams wrote in a statement to the House Judiciary Committee.

Costs stack up

All told, Williams estimates the costs of the program could amount to nearly $100 million in Tucson for 2013 alone. If efforts were to be tripled, as outlined in the Senate immigration bill, Tucson would have to make a hefty investment with more judges, courts and magistrates.

“A law like that would require a good expenditure of money,” said Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco of the Federal District Court. Tucson recently built a new courthouse to keep up with the many demands in the area, but by the time it was open, they needed more space.

“We were already full occupancy,” Velasco recalls.  “Quite frankly, we need another courthouse.”

Williams' report estimated that taxpayers could spend more than $100 million on just incarcerating defendants out of Tucson. The program has been a boom for the region’s private prison industry, which is a constant target of criticism for its burgeoning profits and government contracts to keep the beds there full.

“They’re absolutely not only making money off of the needless criminalization of immigrants, they stand to make much more,” said Matthew Lowen of American Friends Service Committee Arizona, an activist group that challenges mass incarceration.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which runs the private prisons where Operation Streamline defendants are sent, points out that less than half of its government contracts include occupancy requirements and allow provisions for the government to terminate its agreement if it can’t reach the need. “The idea that somehow the government is locked into capacity it doesn’t need is grounded more in politics than fact,” said Steve Owen, spokesperson for CCA.

Meanwhile, the length of the inmates’ stay behind bars varies dramatically compared to cases that are not run through Operation Streamline.

Defense attorneys point to a massive sentencing disparity. Defendants who don’t go through Operation Streamline aren't given the option to flip felony charges for lesser misdemeanors. Instead of facing a maximum of six months, their sentences  range from two to 20 years depending on their previous criminal record.

“Everyone in Streamline get no more than six months,” said defense attorney Richard Bacal, who represents undocumented immigrants both in and out of Operation Streamline. “The disparity is that those who aren’t offered Streamline are ones who are in Arizona with prior federal criminal convictions get years.”

Local activists in Tucson have levied protests against these private attorneys, saying they are not doing enough to protect the rights of their clients.

“This is a terrible, unethical way of processing people,” said Leslie Carlson, an activist with the End Streamline Coalition. “We shouldn’t be criminalizing people whose only crime is crossing the border.”

A near constant concern for activists, attorneys and judges alike is whether the defendants, mostly Spanish-speakers and some with limited education, understand the intricacies of U.S. courts.

In the courtroom in Tucson last week, Felix Rios-Rios rustled in his seat. The U.S. Marshalls keeping tabs on the courtroom stormed his row of shackled defendants as Rios-Rios stood out of turn, looking around the room with a confused expression. With graying, peppered hair, he is by far the oldest man in the room. He's one of the last groups to face the judge and see his fate.

“Have any promises been made to you or were you forced to plead guilty today?” Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Rateau asks.

“No,” each man says.

Coughing, Rios-Rios choked on his words. Each time he coughed, tufts of dust flew from his disheveled t-shirt. Rateau stopped to pour him a glass of water. Rios-Rios could barely drink from the cup with the shackles tied from his wrists to his waist. 

“Are you guilty of entering the U.S. illegally?” Rateau asks, continuing the proceeding.

“Si,” they all say.