Factory “Justice”

January 31, 2011

I’m not sure what I expected, but the federal courthouse was just like any other building in downtown Tucson, only a few stories tall and new looking, fronted by a nondescript, empty plaza area with nowhere to sit. It actually appeared to be two desert-beige buildings connected by a curving glass atrium, and I was unsure which one would have the trial in it. After hesitating a few moments I followed a woman in a suit into the one on the left.

The lobby had very high ceilings and was empty except for two bored-seeming security guards. After I emptied my pockets, showed them a US-government-issued ID, and walked through the metal detector, they left me alone, and I still didn’t know where to go. On a wall I found a screen with the day’s schedule on it, a list of room numbers, times, judges, and titles. None said Operation Streamline, so I had to assume the ‘Special Proceedings’ in 2A at 1:30 was where I wanted to go. I stood looking around, trying to find a way upstairs, but the guards still ignored me.

Eventually I found an elevator, which I shared with a Latino janitor. The second floor was empty too and I could make no sense of the room-numbering system. Eventually someone came out of the elevator, her heels echoing in the silent hallway, and she pointed out which room I needed to be in.

The left side of the room was packed with Latino people, as well as the jury box. In the middle set of rows were scattered a few white men, maybe five, in suits. They seemed comfortable and disinterested, so I assumed they were the public defenders. Two well dressed women sat in the first row on the right side, chatting like old friends. Behind them were four younger, more casually dressed women, and behind them was an older woman with gray hair in a t-shirt. I sat behind them all in the second-to-last row, which was empty.

‘Are you here to observe?’ the older woman whispered to me when I sat down. I told her yes, and when I saw her shirt said No More Deaths I told her I was a NMD volunteer too. She introduced herself as Lois and asked if it was my first time at Streamline. When I said it was she invited me to sit next to her and said she could answer any questions I might have. She goes to most of the hearings, which are every weekday.

While we waited for the proceedings to begin, I looked around the room. One of the public defenders had his foot up on his bench, revealing his blue socks with small red diamonds on them. Another read the newspaper. All the Latinos on the other side were wearing casual street clothes: jeans, workpants, tshirts, faded workshirts. Most had on wireless headphones. All were silent. I couldn’t figure out the difference between those in the jury box and the ones in the observation area, or why there were more than twelve in the box.

After the well dressed women stopped talking, one went to sit in the middle section and talk quietly with one of the men. The other turned to look at us, and one of the younger women in front of me—the one with the tattoo across her shoulders—asked her a question I couldn’t hear.

‘I usually get between 20-minutes and a half hour with each one,’ she replied. ‘I think it’s enough time. And I can have more time if I want it.’

She told us that she likes defending people in this hearing because she thinks it’s important to show them some respect, to treat them with dignity. And it’s easier than working as a public defender in the regular courts, where she assured us she’d put in her time.

A few minutes after 1:30 the bailiff ordered us all to rise and the judge entered, a middle-aged white man, and the bailiff announced the first case. The judge talked fast and the volume on his microphone was surprisingly low for such a big room, so it was hard to hear him. From what I could gather, it sounded like the defendant, who was from Guatemala but not in the room, didn’t speak Spanish so he could not be tried in court. His charges were dropped, I think. It was over in a matter of minutes.

Quickly he moved into the Streamline hearing. He began by describing the charges and what was going to happen during the proceedings. It was very important to him, he insisted, that everyone understand what was happening and why they were there: because they were not a citizen and had entered the United States ‘at a time and/or place not designated by the Border Patrol.’ For those who were first offenders, this ‘illegal entry’ is a misdemeanor, and carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison or a $5000 fine. For those who had been previously deported, they were being charged with ‘illegal re-entry,’ a felony. The judge encouraged anyone who did not understand these charges to ask questions. No one did.

And so it began, first with the felonies. A woman with a good Spanish accent called the first eight names and seven men and one woman, who had been in the jury box, stood up and shuffled to the front of the room. A few of the public defenders went too, to stand behind their clients. It was only then that I realized the metal clinking, which sounded almost like rain on a tin roof, which had been going on since I’d walked into the room, was the chains around every brown person in the room’s ankles, waists, and wrists, and that every brown person in the room was a defendant.

The judge read each person’s name again, and their country of citizenship. ‘Jaime Manuel Rubio Rodriguez, a citizen of Mexico, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of America on our around July 14, 2010, near Sasabe, Arizona. Jose Angel Garcia Valasquez, a citizen of Honduras, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of America on or about July 13, 2010, near Nogales, Arizona. Ailsa Maria Hernandez Hernandez, a citizen of Mexico, you are charged with illegally re-entering the United States of American on or about July 14, 2010, near Sasabe, Arizona.’ And so on.

When he finished with each of the eight people, he asked if they understood the charges against them. After a few seconds’ delay, so his English could be translated into Spanish and transmitted into the headsets they were all wearing, they replied in monotone unison: ‘Si.’ He asked how they plead. Delay. ‘Culpable.’ Were they coerced into entering this plea? Delay. ‘No.’ Again his offer for them to ask questions was met with silence. I’ve heard no one’s ever plead not guilty.

Again he read their names, but this time with their sentence. The felony was dropped for each of them, and they were charged with the misdemeanor. ‘Jaime Manuel Rubio Rodriguez. Forty-five days. Jose Angel Garcia Valasquez. Thirty days. Ailsa Maria Hernandez Hernandez. One-hundred eighty days.’

Lois leaned over to me to say that she’d probably been caught several times if she was receiving the maximum sentence. While she was telling me this, a lawyer stepped up the microphone. ‘Mrs. Hernandez has two small children in Phoenix. The defense requests she be sent a prison as close to there as possible.’ The judge said he would recommend it.

After each was given their sentence, the judge looked up at them. ‘Good luck to you all,’ he said without much feeling. ‘I hope you have no more troubles.’ With that, they all turned to their right to be led back into the holding cell. A door in the wall just in front of where we were sitting opened and an armed officer stepped out, motioning to the prisoners.

The eight walked right toward us, chains rattling loudly, only able to take short steps because of the shackles, and because the laces had been removed from their worn tennis shoes. Most were somewhat disheveled, still wearing the same dirty clothes they had been in when they were picked up in the desert. One wore an orange jumpsuit. Lois said that might mean he’d been found with no clothes.

A few looked up at me as they passed by, not ten feet away, but their eyes communicated nothing I could understand. Most kept their eyes lowered. As soon as the guard closed the door behind them eight more names were called and eight more people made their way slowly to the front.

In the third group, when the judge asked if they understood the charges against them, a lone voice answered in clear English while the question was still being translated into Spanish for the other seven. I heard Lois take in air sharply. ‘He’s probably lived in the US for years if he speaks perfect English,’ she leaned over and told me. ‘He probably had a family here.’ Throughout the rest of the hearing a handful of other people answered the questions in English, and every time Lois shook her head and reacted audibly.

It continued like this for more than an hour. The litany of names droned on, as did the repetitive questions and explanations by the judge, always exactly the same. ‘Si,’ eight voices said at once, over and over again. ‘Culpable.’ ‘No.’ Rattling chains. Thirty days. Sixty days. Forty-five days. Ninety days. Thirty days. One-hundred twenty days. One-hundred eighty days. Rattling chains. ‘Good luck to you all. I hope you have no more troubles.’

When he finished with the felony charges, the judge moved on to the first offenders. Nothing changed in the routine, except that they all received time served and were turned right over to ICE, who still had the right to hold them. I don’t know for how long, and the judge said he could not influence ICE’s decisions.

I tried to keep tallies of the nationality and gender of each defendant, as well as where they crossed the border, but there were too many. Four Hondurans. Eight Guatemalans. Fifty-two Mexicans. I think I missed a few in the numbing repetitiveness of it all. Seven women.

‘Good luck to you all. I hope you have no more troubles. Court adjourned.’ The sound of rattling chains did not stop until the last person walked through the door into the holding cell.

Much has been written about Operation Streamline. This article gives a lot more context.

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