Profiting From Immigration Injustice
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.
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. The judge replied that while he would issue a “recommendation” for the defendant to serve his time in Washington, the Bureau of Prisons had the final say on where he would serve his prison term. “See!” Garcia said, seething.
If the man’s request to serve his jail term near his family was not met — and it clearly would not be — he could expect to do time at the nearby Eloy Detention Center, operated by a controversial private prison firm called Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Nine immigrants have died under mysterious circumstances under CCA’s watch at Eloy. The dead include an ailing 62-year-old Ghanian man imprisoned in 2006 for a misdemeanor he had committed in 1979 and a 36-year-old man from Ecuador who was refused treatment for testicular cancer even as he writhed in pain on the floor of his cell. In 2006, another detainee, a 27-year-old immigrant from Colombia who initially refused treatment for headaches and dizziness died weeks later of a seizure when Eloy medical staff members ignored him for an hour after he collapsed. Reporters and lawyers seeking information on the deaths have been stonewalled by CCA and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE); the death of the Ecuadorean, Felix Frankin Torres-Rodriguez, was never reported by CCA.
When ICE conducted an internal investigation of CCA’s Eloy center in 2006, it found that the facility had “failed on multiple levels to perform basic supervision and provide for the safety and welfare of ICE detainees.” But thanks to Streamline, CCA’s nonunion prison operation continues to bring work to the town of Eloy.
In September, Money magazine ranked the home of Eloy Detention Center, Pinal County, as the county with the fastest rate of job growth in the country. “Over the past several years, we have welcomed three more CCA facilities in Eloy,” boasted Eloy City Manager Joseph Blanton. “CCA has brought nearly 1,500 new jobs to Eloy through these facilities.”
As CCA expands in Pinal County, so does the bill to American taxpayers. According to David Gonzalez, the U.S. marshal for Arizona, taxpayers pay from $9 million to $11 million a month to incarcerate immigrants at Eloy alone. To preserve the flow, CCA has cultivated high-level political connections on both sides of the aisle. Among its board of directors is former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a friend of Department of Homeland Security Director Napolitano and the former boss of U.S. Attorney Burke, who worked as a counsel at DeConcini’s law firm. (The courthouse where Streamline takes place is named for DeConcini’s father, Evo, who once was Arizona’s attorney general.) CCA’s lobbyists have become familiar faces in Congress and in statehouses across the country; the company spent $770,000 last year to ply lawmakers.
As a new group of second-time border crossers appeared before the judge, one man was questioned about a conviction from 1997 for driving under the influence, a crime that could result in a longer sentence. Speaking through the public defender assigned to the group, the defendant pleaded for mercy. “His wife is a U.S. citizen,” the lawyer informed the judge. “He simply wanted to support his family by picking apples in Washington so he spent hundreds of dollars to take a bus from Acapulco to Nogales. He promises he will never come back to the United States.”
The heartfelt plea seemed to do little good. The judge slapped the man with a 150-day sentence and an admonition. “Don’t come back to the U.S. because it is not worth it,” the judge said in a firm but forced tone. “It’s not worth living in fear all the time. There are a lot of countries around the world that have good economies. You might want to consider immigrating to those countries instead.”
The judge, a bespectacled, dour fellow named Thomas Ferraro, sounded sincere issuing his ludicrous advice. Although he had been appointed head of a virtual kangaroo court for a day each week, Ferraro did not rush through the trial as other magistrates were known to do. He was doing his best to hear the concerns of the defendants, even if there was nothing he could do for them. Garcia whispered to me, “Ferraro feels guilty because it’s a total sham, so he’s putting his personal touch on it. He’s one of the nice ones.”
Finally, Ferraro directed his attention to the 50 or so remaining defendants who were first-time offenders. “Do you give up your rights and plead guilty to the crime of illegal entry?” he asked them.
From the gallery and jury box, a baritone chorus rose up: “Si!” None of the female defendants in the front row uttered a sound, however.
“Do each of you understand the essential elements of your guilty plea?” Ferraro asked.
“Si!” the defendants bellowed again.
Before sentencing the migrants to deportation, Ferraro took one last opportunity to scold them. “This is no way to live your life,” he declared. “Most of you are very young and can go back to Mexico and make a living for yourselves and your family. It will be much easier, believe me, and you won’t be separated from your families.”
While the migrants listened impassively on headphones to a translated version of Ferraro’s lecture, 14 criminal defense attorneys peppered throughout the audience gallery busied themselves jotting notes and playing with their BlackBerries. Though a couple of these lawyers with whom I spoke outside the courtroom seemed passionate in their opposition to Streamline, the vast majority were among the most predatory in town. Their participation in Streamline was motivated by the $110 an hour they earned without exerting a scintilla of effort. They operated as deportation conductors, not advocates. According to Heather Williams, the supervisor of the Tucson Federal Public Defenders Office, the federal government shells out between $6,000 and $12,000 each day to pay the private attorneys who represent Streamline defendants.The migrants were finally led out of the courtroom by two marshals, including one who, like some of the lawyers, spent the entire trial tooling around with his cell phone. As the 11 female defendants filed by, they looked toward Garcia and a public defender representing several of them, Yendi Castillo-Reina. One of the migrant women appeared to be no more than 4 foot 10, so small and thin she seemed to be weighed down by the shackles around her wrists, waist and ankles. The women complained to Garcia and Castillo-Reina that they had not had any water in hours.
“They’ve had water. There’s a fountain right outside!” a beefy marshal bellowed.
Castillo-Reina handed me a stack of papers while she chatted with Garcia. It contained the files of the clients assigned to her that day. The file on the first page read: “Elsa Calderon-Diaz, an alien, was found by agents in the United States of America without proper documentation.” Beside the statement was a mug shot of a woman with short black hair and Mayan features — high cheekbones, full lips, thick, straight black hair — that looked especially stark in the black-and-white photocopy. She had come from a small town in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico and the home of the now-dormant Zapatista indigenous rebel group. The Border Patrol would decide where the woman went next.
Garcia explained that many of the migrants faced lateral repatriation, a relatively new Border Patrol practice that would take them by bus or a charter flight — chained during transit — to crime-ridden border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Presidio, hundreds of miles away along the Texas border, where they would be simply dumped, far from their families and often with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs.
Though the repatriation program was briefly halted in 2003 after the Mexican government protested to the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, the Border Patrol swiftly restarted it, claiming the program would reduce migrant deaths in the desert. The cost to taxpayers has been staggering; each flight costs the government around $28,000. Meanwhile, the migrant death rate has exploded. According to the Arizona Daily Star’s database, the risk of death for illegal border crossers is 1.5 times higher now than five years ago and 17 times greater than in 1998.
“We’ve been saying for as long as I can remember that more enforcement will mean more deaths,” Kat Rodriguez, coordinating organizer for Derechos Humanos Arizona, told me. “All this death is the natural consequence of a failed policy.”
‘We’re All Parasites’
There was agitation in Castillo-Reina’s voice as she spoke to Garcia. “I struggle with this all the time,” I overheard her say. “I’m just conflicted.” It suddenly occurred to me that Garcia and Castillo-Reina were the only Latinas in the room not in chains.
As the courtroom emptied, I walked down a long, empty hallway toward the exit with Castillo-Reina. A mutual friend had told me that unlike Garcia, who helped galvanize the immigrant rights movement in 1997 after a teenage shepherd, Ezequiel Hernandez, was shot to death by U.S. Marines involved in a covert drug interdiction exercise on the border, Castillo-Reina avoided demonstrations and political activity. She had strong convictions but they were closely held.
I asked Castillo-Reina why Streamline has continued to expand even as it failed to demonstrate any practical value. “The only reason I can come up with is that they do this for the benefit of the local economy,” she said in a hushed voice. “Our office size has doubled since Streamline came here, the number of prosecutors is huge, there is an endless supply of criminal defense lawyers in this town; this courthouse is worth 20 million a month for the local economy. And the corporate welfare keeps pouring in. There’s no way in hell the government’s gonna give that up in an economic crisis.”
Castillo-Reina is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico City who moved to Wisconsin to become social workers. She told me that when growing up she got to know the Mexican migrants who flocked to her area during the winter to harvest the pine trees decorating living rooms across America on Christmas Eve. The severe conditions in the migrant camps galvanized her commitment to immigrant rights and eventually propelled her into law school. “I became a lawyer because I watched ‘School [House] Rock,’ ” she reflected. “I believed in the simple things that show taught me about the Constitution.”
But after running up against the draconian immigration system for so long, Castillo-Reina has concluded, “I have no hope. We’re watching an entire class of people get stripped of their constitutional rights, and because of the political climate and the economy, it’s somehow become OK.”
I asked her why she even bothered to participate in Streamline. None of the defendants were able to mount any defense, so what was the point? She paused. Her face began to tremble with emotion. Then tears came pouring from her eyes. “We’re all parasites,” she exclaimed, trying to regain her composure. “But there’s something to bearing witness. If I don’t do this, the reality is somebody else will be in there getting $110 an hour who doesn’t care.”
By now, we were standing outside in the shadow of the towering DeConcini courthouse. Castillo-Reina’s tear-streaked face seemed out of place here. Her outpouring of emotion contrasted with the indifference I had just witnessed in the courtroom. Other than the migrants, who received their sentences with stoic acceptance, hardly anyone in the courtroom seemed to view Streamline as anything more a slight annoyance. For the judge and the marshals, it was another day at the office; for most of the lawyers, it was a chance to make an easy buck; for the prison industry, it has been a cash cow.
Only a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could put Streamline out of business. But the Congress has been fixated on more consequential matters: While I was in Tucson, members of the House Committee on Homeland Security were engaged in emergency hearings about the Salahis, the notorious White House gate crashers.