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Courtroom Scene Illuminates Problems with Immigration System

April 23, 2012

By Marianne Comfort

It was an eye-opening hour in U.S. District Court in Tucson. Even a seasoned criminal attorney from New York City in our group was so disturbed by the injustice that she left the courtroom early.

In just 45 minutes, 70 young men and women – their feet and hands shackled – waived their rights, acknowledged citizenship in another country, pled guilty to illegal entry to the U.S. and accepted sentences ranging from time served to 105 days in prison.

It’s called Operation Streamline and it plays out every day:  immigrants recently caught crossing the border sped through this quick parody of a trial and labeled as criminals, which bars them from ever being able to enter the U.S. legally.

They did have the choice of pleading not guilty and going through a full trial in hopes of lesser sentences, but few choose that option, human rights lawyer Isabel Garcia explained, because it was likely they’d be in jail even longer with all the delays in court dates.

We had thought that this field trip during the Eucharist Without Borders conference was to immigration court, where we would witness civil deportation proceedings. So Garcia had to continually remind us that, no, we were in a criminal court where the immigrants were being charged with misdemeanor counts of illegal entry. If they ever re-entered the U.S., they would be felons and among the criminals we keep hearing are being targeted for deportation, she said. That means that some of these so-called criminals didn’t commit robbery, rape, murder or other feared crimes; they merely entered the U.S. illegally before, missed court hearings or committed other minor offenses. Does it make you feel any safer knowing they are being criminalized and deported? Garcia asked.

She charged that the system is at least partly fueled by the big business of incarceration. Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest name in the private prison industry, earns $17 million a month from just those processed through this U.S. District Court building alone.

Back in the Operation Streamline courtroom, all 70 immigrants, wearing translation headsets, waived their rights in a few-minutes process. Then groups of 7 or so were called to stand in front of the bench, and in an assembly-line fashion were each asked to verify their date of illegal entry and acknowledge the sentencing guidelines. We could hear a series of “si,” then the judge’s pronouncements of sentencing.

Only occasionally did one of the public defenders assigned to the immigrants raise an objection and ask for leniency.

One case was of a man who had worked in the U.S. for 10 years and then returned to Mexico with his wife and two children. The children, U.S. citizens, were unable to register for school in Mexico without birth certificates, and so he had crossed the border to try to get the documents. He asked for less jail time before deportation, explaining that he’d find another way to get the birth certificates and that he had no other reason to return here. The 75-day sentence remained.

Afterward, the judged stopped to talk with us. He calmly responded to questions formed clearly from outrage. He said these immigrants were the lucky ones. They would meet in prison others sentenced to years for the same crime. We know also, however, that some didn’t go through the criminal court system at all. It often depends on how the Border Patrol processes the immigrants they catch, Garcia said.

The judge finally deflected our anger by turning the blame back on us. If you don’t like the criminal justice system, he challenged us, it’s our own fault for allowing the election of legislators who made the laws.

Stand in solidarity with immigrant families. Join us in advocating for immigrant rights.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joy Ochs permalink
    April 23, 2012 7:39 pm

    Students at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids are discussing immigration as a critical concern this semester. This first-hand account will add a needed perspective to our conversation. Thank you.

  2. April 24, 2012 2:51 pm

    I’m glad that this article was helpful to your students’ discussion of immigration. I hope that some of those students are among those coming to DC next month to advocate on the issue.

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