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Profiting From Immigration Injustice

Posted on Feb 14, 2010
AP / Laura Rauch

Captured immigrants are herded onto a bus near the Arizona-Mexico border in this file photo.

By Max Blumenthal

When an architect named Norman Pfeiffer designed the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., he claimed to have been inspired by its natural surroundings. “From afar,” Pfeiffer told Architecture Week, “the desert tells little of what it knows. ... But upon closer scrutiny it reveals its true self.”

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The 413,000-square-foot, $67.3 million monolith that Pfeiffer erected blends easily with the pale desert landscape flanking downtown Tucson. The earth-toned structure appears so bland a casual passer-by might not even take a second glance. Only a few observers have ventured inside to witness the spectacle that takes place on the third floor. 

The show begins each day at 1 p.m., when about 75 undocumented immigrants just captured along the U.S.-Mexico border are marched into the room in leg irons and manacles and compelled all at once to plead guilty to entering the country illegally. Although the proceeding has the trappings of a trial, the defendants never challenge the charges against them, and are clearly discouraged from doing so. They know their fate is preordained: deportation to a border town, separation from their families and occasionally a few months in a privatized prison.

The daily trials are mandated by a program called Operation Streamline. When Streamline was announced by President George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security in 2005, Border Patrol officials argued that trying undocumented immigrants and keeping records of their illegal entries would deter them from coming back over the border. But over the two years since its 2008 inception, the program has failed to achieve any of its stated goals; only the shrinking job market has prevented impoverished Latin American migrants from venturing across the border in search of work.

Since Streamline arrived in Arizona in 2008 it has morphed into a pipeline transferring millions in federal funds into the state’s anemic economy. Almost everyone involved in the program is lining their pockets with taxpayer money, from a controversial private prison company to a rapidly growing pool of courthouse criminal defense attorneys to the grim federal marshals who herd migrants in and out of the courtroom. Thanks to Streamline, the number of public defenders has nearly doubled in Tucson, the Border Patrol has bolstered its ranks with new agents and the local prison industry is booming. The program represents the entrenchment of a parallel nonproductive economy promoting abuse behind the guise of law enforcement and crime deterrence.


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Immigrant rights advocates appeared to have scored a decisive victory against Streamline when the 9th Circuit federal court of appeals ruled last Dec. 2 that trying defendants en masse violated established rules on legal procedure. “We act within a system maintained by rules of procedure,” Senior Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, a Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, concluded in his opinion. “We cannot dispense with the rules without setting a precedent subversive of the structure.”

The Obama administration and the Border Patrol, however, have sought to comply with the court’s ruling without having to scrap Streamline. They have ordered magistrates to hear each plea one by one when a group of migrants is brought into the court, turning already grinding hour-and-a-half proceedings into three-hour-long ordeals. “It’s not unprecedented. It can be done,” insisted Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Arizona who was chief of staff to Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano when she was Arizona governor.

I witnessed Streamline last Nov. 30, just days before the court’s decision blocked the government from compelling migrants to plead en masse. Isabel Garcia, a public defender and fiery national immigrant rights icon, invited me to report the proceeding. Last summer, Garcia led a demonstration to the courthouse gates, directing the community’s indignation against what she described as unconstitutional factory justice. Local right-wing radio hosts and anti-immigrant activists have clamored for the city to oust her from her job as public defender. So far, Garcia’s antagonists have failed in their crusade.

The Nov. 30 trial began as soon as the migrants were marched into the room and seated wherever they could fit, from the jury box to the audience gallery. All of the migrants were young and brown-skinned, with combed black hair, wearing the same clothes they wore during their perilous trek across the Sonoran Desert but without the belts and shoelaces they were forced to surrender to prevent suicide attempts. A few men struggled to keep their pants from falling down as they ambled into their seats. The eerie clang of chains reverberated around the courtroom like the sound of wind chimes; the migrants were bound in manacles and leg irons, even the 11 young women who occupied the front row.

The judge summoned three migrants to the front of the room. They stood before the bench with expressionless looks and oversized, secondhand clothes hanging off their bone-thin frames. The judge quickly dismissed them from the proceeding, explaining that the court was unable to find anyone who could translate his English into Chatino, the indigenous dialect the three men spoke. The men remained frozen with blank stares, oblivious to the judge’s remarks. Finally, a marshal stepped forward to lead the three out of the room and into a holding cell.

Next, a group of about a dozen migrants with prior illegal-border-crossing convictions were summoned to the bench. The judge promptly sentenced each man to prison terms ranging from 30 to 150 days. Those who had incurred legal infractions during previous stays, no matter how minor, were given more time. After being sentenced to serve 150 days, one of the defendants piped up. “I’m just concerned about where I’ll serve my time in jail,” he declared plaintively in unaccented English. “I wonder if I could serve my time in Washington [state]. My daughters are there and so is my girlfriend and we’ve been living together for several years.”

“No way is the judge going to do that,” Garcia grumbled to me.

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By Maria, February 19, 2010 at 9:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Only a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could put Streamline out of business.”

The only thing “comprehensive immigration reform”—which means legalization of potentially 30 million people who broke U.S. law to come to the country—will do is continue the flow of people to an already significantly overpopulated country.

I have tremendous sympathy for the pain and suffering that poverty-stricken people have and are enduring to try for a better life. That doesn’t make it okay to break the laws.  Beyond breaking the law to enter the U.S., there’s a whole litany of reasons why accepting tens of millions of undocumented people to the country is wrong. This includes that, among the thousands of law-abiding folks (except for breaking the law to get here, often using false documents and frequently not paying federal or state income taxes), there are thousands of criminals and gang members.

Do you want the country to be a country of laws or not? Do you want the country to be grossly overpopulated and compete with other countries for Third World status? Again, yes, many of the stories are heartbreaking, but how many people do you want to let into the U.S. 30 million? 50 million? 500 million? What is the humane number? There are millions of people on the planet living in poverty. The best thing we could do as a country is to export ideas and assistance to make these countries self-sufficient. A big part of this starts with a population policy.

For more information, I suggest visiting Californians for Population Stabilization.

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By American Observer, February 17, 2010 at 8:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

On the national ID card, that’s an excellent idea, IMO, but I would add, that
they should do it through a national health insurance card, i.e. single

I will also add that they should throw out all the people coming in on visas to
do jobs Americans could do much better.  They are hired only for language
skills, and they have entire health care administrative staffs that are
incompetant and corrupt.

The only reason they’re there, and often in settings working under Mexican
government officials, is because they are supporting the illegal corrupt FEUDAL
labor system coming into the United States from these unbelievably racist and
classist societies.

And our tax dollars are going for that while Americans can’t get health care or

They should expedite the deportation of these entire strata of “legal” workers
too.  Including these former and CORRUPT Mexican consulate officers
preceding over entire health care sectors in the United States.

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By American Observer, February 16, 2010 at 11:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This article is very one-sided.  I don’t think they should be warehousing people
in prisons, but the fact is, they shouldn’t be in the United States and should be
sent back to their homelands to apply legally and in freedom.  If people are
booted out, they shouldn’t be coming back in, and then getting a jail sentence.

I agree that NAFTA is a big part of this and they should get rid of it.  But
another part of it is that our government turned its head while scores of people
just kept coming in illegally, and Americans profited from cheap labor that
drove wages down and put Americans out of work in entire industries.

Only the latte sipping liberals who like their inexpensive maids, lawn keepers
and babysitters, cheap vegetables, and nice salaries for themselves like to toot
off about how it’s “not jobs Americans wants” or “not jobs Americans will do.”

Well - uh - sure if it’s 3.00 per hour.  You all support slavery.

Cesar Chavez never supported border hopping.

The reaosn you have people in shackles is because there’s so many people at
once, and they wouldn’t be able to handle them because they’d run, and they
can’t shoot if they run because it’s border crossing not armed robbery.

But it might as well be.

They should throw the useless lawyers out.  But the rest of these people are
expediting it, and making the prisons that much less needed.

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By ofersince72, February 16, 2010 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment

the world could use a lot more like you gerard.

No one will address the root of this….NAFTA.
Even in the original trade agreement it was cited
the numbers of Mexicans that would be driven
homeless and migrants in the first year.

During the Bush admin., when the farm deal of the
Nafta kicked in,  it was again estimated the number
of Mexican farmers that would be driven off their
farm lands….

Totaled,,it is in the millions that have been
displaced and left jobless and hungry….it is a shame that they have to leave their families to work
a job that no american will work just to eat the food
that was grown in their own country.

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By politicky, February 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment

Take a look at the top buddy boy.  The banksters and their lawyer hos.

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By gerard, February 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

I honestly don’t know who is worse, the person who writes comments here, blaming illegals, or the person like me who reads articles like this, feels sympathy and sorrow for them.
Nevertheless, I turn away and do littlel or nothing to stop this atrocious exploitation of innocent, poverty-driven people trying to come here to earn a living they can’t earn in Mexico because the poverty there is grinding and there are no jobs for them.

I try to cover my guilt by helping individual persons in need, and by contributing small sums to support organizations like the American Friends Service Committee working on the border for sanity and justice—but it’s a needle in a haystack.

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By gerard, February 15, 2010 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

Geez, Looeeez!  What are we going to do when we find out that the earth belongs to everybody and national borders are artificial lines in sand drawn by people who have more, in order to keep out people who have less?  Lots of times they stole the land from the poor people in the first place, but ...but…but…
  When are we going to start voluntary reasonable birth control to cut back on overpopulation? It’s actually so easy!  When are we going to stop wasting millions of dollars on killing people in other countries? That’s not so hard, either,  When are we going to cut back on our overuse and waste of the world’s resources in “rich” countries simply because we can afford to waste, and nobody is strong enough to make us stop? 
  When are we going to recognize that we are all members of one huge human famiy—some young, some old, some one color, some another—all suffering from the same aches and pains, all nurturing the same hopes and fears? When? 
  Will the weapons we have invented, and the cruel hearts we have nurtured kill us all off before we have had a chance to fulfill our potential?

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By NABNYC, February 15, 2010 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

As I recall, illegal immigrants used to be fairly summarily returned to their country of origin when they were caught, but then the court got involved and decided that anyone inside this country was entitled to “due process” of the law.  “Process” means, among other things, that each person is entitled to some kind of a hearing, whether a full trial or not. 

It is because of that court decision that our country is obligated to house the illegal immigrants caught inside our country, guard them (if they were released inside our country, obviously they would go somewhere else, not return for a deportation hearing), set up an administrative procedure for hearings, etc.  All at tremendous expense to taxpayers.

The only legitimate question is:  are you legally here in the U.S.  The answer in most cases is no.  Nothing else is relevant (except for asylum seekers), and the hearings should take 5 minutes.

If we had a national ID program, all of this could be eliminated.  Tell every immigrant that they must apply to get a national Id card showing that they are lawful permanent residents, or citizens, that they have the legal right to be here.  The ID card should include a photo and fingerprints so it can be easily determined if the person holding the card is the person whose name is on the card.  If they have that card, they can work and live in peace.  If they lose the card, they must report it immediately.  If they don’t have a card, but can prove they got one or are entitled to one, so be it. 

The people who object to the idea of a national ID card are people who support the continued influx of illegal immigrants to take American jobs.  Every person I know who works against a national Id card for immigrants is also a supporter of open borders, at least with Mexico.  They don’t really card about the ID card—they just don’t want the illegal immigrants thrown out.

Most of the people picked up in these sweeps are here illegally.  The only reason they don’t admit that is because they hope somehow they can fool the authorities.  It’s a waste of our money.  There should be strict enforcement of our immigration laws, and people who are here illegally should be deported as expeditiously as possible.

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By Deborah, February 15, 2010 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a fluff pro-illegal article.  The illegals are getting justice for the crimes they commit and rightfully so. If they cannot abide by our laws and enter the proper way, then they deserve what they get.  Illegals seem to think our laws don’t apply to them.  Sorry, no sympathy for these criminals.  If they don’t want to go through this, then don’t come here !!

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