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Posted Dec 14, 2015, 10:09 pm
Nearly a dozen pastors interrupted federal court proceedings in Tucson on Monday, as part of an ongoing protest against a fast-track immigration prosecution system known as Operation Streamline.
Wednesday will mark the 10-year anniversary of the controversial program that critics argue is "assembly-line justice" that violates the civil rights of immigrants. However, federal officials have defended Streamline, arguing that it cuts down on recidivism for illegal entry as part of system of "consequence delivery" designed to keep immigrants from attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico a second time.
Created in El Paso in 2005, Operation Streamline is now used in seven border cities to quickly adjudicate up to 70 immigrants in a courtroom twice a week for two crimes: illegal entry and felony illegal reentry.
While the program running in Tucson since 2008, in recent years, the program has come under pressure by immigration activists.
In Oct. 2013, a group of activists blocked the federal courthouse, while another group chained themselves beneath two buses carrying immigrants. The protest ultimately stopped the immigration proceedings for the day, and 18 people were arrested and found guilty, though judges declined to sentence them to jail time or fines.
Monday, in the special purpose courtroom of the Evo A. DeConcini federal courthouse in Downtown, 69 alleged illegal immigrants in manacles listened as Judge Bruce A. MacDonald worked his way through the proceedings.
As MacDonald asked the first man to enter his plea of "culpable," or guilty in Spanish, Rev. Alison Harrington stood up with a Bible in her hand.
The pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church spoke haltingly in Spanish, "Tu no eres culpable, esta corte es culpable." Or, "You are not guilty, this court is guilty."
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A U.S. marshal immediately waded into the audience and held Harrington's shoulders, removing her from the courtroom.
Addressing the court, where photography and recording devices are prohibited, MacDonald said, "You are more than welcome to observe, but please do not interrupt these proceedings."
For a moment, the first immigrant hesitated, but MacDonald pressed him for his plea. "Culpable," he said. "Guilty."
The rest of the men followed him, each pleading guilty. By the end of the proceedings, all 69 pleaded "cupable," and only a few asked for recommendation that they be held in a different facility.
One man, Efrain Munoz-Tapia asked to be held in North Carolina so that his daughter, who has hasn't seen in 11 years, could visit him. Another man, Obin Esteban Carrillo asked to be held in Florence so that he could see his wife.
While each defendant is told that they can plead innocent and take their case to trial, most do not.
In a survey conducted by the University of Arizona's Center for Latin America studies, around 40 percent of those who went through the program said they were instructed by their lawyers to plead guilty.
The sentences are wide-ranging depending on their case, but on Monday, MacDonald handed out sentences of 30 days to 180 days to be served at a number of federal and private prisons. Following their prison sentence, each migrant will be deported to their home country. While many are Mexican, the number of those from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala continues to increase as violence and economic collapse continue to push migrants on the dangerous journey northward.
$5 billion for immigration detention
Activists argue that the program enriches the private prison industry, which receives up to $90 million each year from immigrants sentenced through Operation Streamline, according to analysis by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group that challenges U.S. prison policies.
The U.S. Marshals Service alone spends $63 million annually to detain immigrants for detention, and the total cost of immigration detention has rose to $1.2 billion in 2011. Over the last five years, the U.S. government has spent at least $5 billion, according to AFSC.
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Moreover, in May, Homeland Security's Inspector General's Office issued a report that Operation Streamline may not affect recidivism rates for immigrants attempting re-entry into the United States, and that the program could violate international laws.
Despite this, the program remains popular with Republicans.
U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced the Criminal Alien Deportation Act in the Senate in July, which included new support for Operation Streamline, along with a requirement that the Department of Homeland Security detain unauthorized immigrants arrested or convicted on serious crimes and deport them within 90 days.
The bill also asked for help to hire 100 judges to deal with the new influx of immigration cases and reiterated a March resolution intended to maintain Operation Streamline in the Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors, while demanding that official continue to prosecute "first time illegal border crossers under Operation Streamline."
The bill has remained stalled since its introduction along with a similar House bill, also introduced by Republican legislators.
Meanwhile, two Democratic candidates for president have said that they would end Operation Streamline.
In July, Martin O'Malley told a group of immigration activists that he would end Operation Streamline. Ending Streamline is also part of the immigration platform for Sen. Bernie Sanders.
While the Republican candidates for president have not mentioned Streamline by name, the third leg of Donald Trump's immigration platform is built on apprehension and deportation.
While other candidates have sought to distance themselves from Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have both issued support for deportations and border security, precisely the kind of policies that make Operation Streamline work.
Other pastors speak
On Monday, Rev. John Fife, once the pastor for Southside Presbyterian and now retired, also stood, a few minutes after Harrington was removed from the courtroom. As marshals closed in, Fife said: "I have observed these proceedings a number of times, and each time, I'm reminded that this is a travesty of justice, it's against human rights. This court is guilty."
Fife walked out of the courtroom, with two marshals trailing. Fife said afterward that he interrupted the court because he had watched "too long in silence as Streamline has violated human rights, legal ethics and my faith."
Soon, another pastor followed, reading a section of the Bible, before marshals removed him from the courtroom.
A former pastor of Eastside Covenant Church, Dan Johnson said that he came to the courtroom to speak as a follower of Jesus Christ.
"Jesus was a friend to the poor, and so too must I be a friend to the poor," Johnson said. "The people placed in these court proceedings are often seeking to escape unbearable poverty — to criminalize them is a terrible injustice."
In the courtroom, MacDonald chided the pastors. "This is not an effective way to air your grievances," he said, before returning to ask for the pleas of five more men and one woman.
Each pleaded guilty.
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.