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Updated Oct 11, 2013, 5:16 pm Originally posted Oct 11, 2013, 4:19 pm
Activists brought the fast-track immigration court called Operation Streamline to a full stop Friday morning, blocking the driveway to Tucson's federal courthouse and halting two buses carrying immigration detainees on the Interstate 10 frontage road.
The four-hour protest began around 8 a.m. when a group of about six protestors chained themselves together at the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse, using a pipe called a dragon sleeve to cover their arms and make it difficult for officers to break them apart.
Another group of protestors stood in the frontage road not far way, stopping two buses traveling to the courthouse with around 70 people slated for immigration hearings. Twelve protestors then chained themselves to the front wheels of each bus in groups of three, using dragon sleeves.
The demonstration effectively halted immigration hearings for the day as officers from a number of agencies cordoned off both areas.
"Our goal is to stop Operation Streamline today," said Sarah Launius, one of the protestors chained to the bus. "It's unjust and we cannot allow this to continue."
Implemented in Tucson in 2008, the controversial program fast-tracks each day as many as 100 prosecutions of those suspected of being in the country illegally. Some critics have called the program, in which defendants plead guilty in large groups, "assembly-line justice."
The Tucson Police Department brought in officers from the Rapid Response Team, who came in with training and tools to deal with this kind of situation, said Chief Roberto Villaseñor. More than 70 TPD officers responded, along with more than a dozen officers from Border Patrol, as well as the Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Marshals.
Before noon, two people standing at the bus were arrested for refusing to disperse and officers moved in with helmets and batons, pushing back a crowd of more than 50 protestors. Additional officers brought in with a rotary saw powered by a generator and other tools to cut through the chains.
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Those chained to the buses were taken into custody by 1 p.m.
Villaseñor said the move was necessary because about 70 people were on the two buses, which lacked food, water or bathroom facilities. The protest was also inferring with the right of the detainees on the bus to a "speedy trial," he said at an afternoon press conference.
Each protestor who was chained to the bus will be charged with hindering prosecution, a felony that can carry a penalty of up to 30 months in prison.
Two others were arrested on the sidewalk for refusing to disperse or "were identified by the drivers or Border Patrol as those who stopped the buses," said Villaseñor. A total of 18 people were arrested by Tucson police.
At noon, officials announced that the day's Operation Streamline hearing was cancelled. Those on board the buses were returned to holding and should face trial next week.
The protestors chained to the driveway gate of the courthouse at West Congress Street and South Granada Avenue voluntarily unchained themselves and left the property before any arrests were made by federal authorities, TPD Sgt. Chris Widmer said.
This is the second time that immigration activists and police officers have clashed this week. On Tuesday, a traffic stop led to the arrest of two men on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Nearly 100 protestors formed a human chain blocking a Border Patrol truck and Tucson police responded with pepper-spray and pepper-ball rounds. Four people were arrested that night.
During Friday's press conference, Villaseñor was asked if Tucson police are caught in the middle between protestors and immigration policy. "TPD is caught in the middle of this whole immigration issue. We talked about this for a couple of years now and we knew this was going to be the outcome."
"But, we're going to enforce the law," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the protestors at the court house gate were arrested. They voluntarily left the scene.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.