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Profiting From Immigration Injustice
Posted on Feb 14, 2010
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.”
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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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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