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Immigration activists on trial for 2013 Streamline protest

Twelve immigration activists are on trial for their role in an October 2013 protest that stopped two buses carrying immigrants bound for a federal court for prosecution through a fast-track process, Operation Streamline, that some say is "assembly-line justice." They're using their case to again voice their reasons for protesting.

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After breakfast at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Son., Janet Leyva showed her scars. 

The first was from a surgery to place a pin after Leyva, 22, broke her ankle running from U.S. Border Patrol agents during an attempt to cross into the country illegally. 

The second scar is braid-like, left by too-tight shackles when she was deported by U.S. officials on Feb. 13, after she was held for a month in a prison in Eloy. 

The scar is a reminder of her prosecution and imprisonment for illegal re-entry in a fast-track process known as Operation Streamline. Her husband, who was traveling with her, remains in prison. 

The federal program fast-tracks prosecution and imprisonment of immigrants crossing into the United States illegally. Those caught up in the program will be prosecuted, en mass along with up to 70 others, twice a week at the U.S. District Court in Tucson.

But on Oct. 11, 2013, the Streamline process ground to a halt when a group of immigration-rights activists halted two buses on the Interstate 10 frontage road Downtown, chaining themselves to the front wheels in groups of three using a pipe called a 'dragon sleeve' to cover their arms and make it nearly impossible for police to break them apart. Eighteen were arrested while halting the bus, with 16 ultimately being charged.

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At the same time, a second group chained themselves to the front gate of the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse just blocks away, closing the driveway. 

That group of six was found guilty in October 2014, and in a later sentencing hearing were given time served by a federal judge. 

On Monday, 12 of the protestors went on trial at the new glass-encased Pima County Justice Court at 240 N. Stone Ave., just a few blocks from the federal court where Operation Streamline is held. 

In the courtroom of Judge Susan Bacal, the dozen argued that their actions were a necessary act of civil disobedience against Operation Streamline. Two other protesters arrested that day agreed to plea bargains, and two others have yet to face trial.

The 12 on trial this week are Maryada Esther Vallet, Gabriel Matthew Schivone, Alexandra Nicole Sabo, Devora Gonzalez, Angelica Moreno Loreto, and Charles Edward Kaufman, along with Michelle Marie Jahnke, Stephen Russell Johnston, Julia Mihich Harden, Sarah Anne Launius, Ethan John Beasley and Paula Lee McPheeters.

They are each charged with a series of misdemeanors stemming from the protest, with a potential six-month sentence. While being prompted to civil disobedience isn't a defense in their cases, they hope to again raise the issue of what they consider to be Streamline's injustice while their cases are heard.

Calling the program "assembly-line justice," the group managed to stop Operation Streamline for the day after they halted the bus on its way to court.

Most of those on the bus were deported over the weekend, however, at least three went through Streamline the following Tuesday. 

Vallet called Operation Streamline "an affront to due process." 

"It’s supposed to deter people, but it doesn’t and instead it criminalizes people, including those who are trying to return to family members in the United States," she said. 

What is Streamline? 

Critics argue that the “enforcement with consequences program” violates the rights of those who go through Operation Streamline, arguing that lawyers often push for guilty pleas and that many immigrants don’t understand the process, or the consequences of their plea. 

Sentences range from 30 days to six months, however, an illegal re-entry conviction can carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison, often served in private dentition facilities operating under federal contracts. This also includes a 10-year ban on returning to the United States. 

Detainees get 30 minutes to meet with a lawyer and then each person is asked for their plea, leading to a cascade of "culpable," the Spanish phrase for guilty. 

Federal officials point to the program’s low recidivism rate as a sign of its success. 

In fiscal year 2012, the recidivism rate for Operation Streamline was just above 10 percent, far below voluntary returns at nearly 24 percent and hovering just above standard prosecutions which at around 9 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

In Tucson, nearly 80,000 people have been prosecuted under Operation Streamline, more formally known as the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative. 

Meeting the deported 

On Saturday, five of the protesters traveled to the Kino Border Initiative to meet with people who might have been deported through Operation Streamline. 

Sarah Launius believes that Operation Streamline must "not be allowed to continue."

"There is no greater fear that any of us can experience than that involving permanent separation from those we love. The pain and sorrow is simply too much for many to take," Launius said. 

After a meal at the the Kino Border Initiative in across the border in Nogales, Levya told her story. 

In January, Levya and her husband were traveling in a car north of Agua Prieta when they were stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents. 

Her husband was trapped in the back seat, so Leyva ran and was lost in the desert for three days before she was picked up by BP agents.

Both were brought to the Border Patrol’s Tucson headquarters and then delivered to the federal courthouse in Tucson for prosecution. 

For Levya, the experience was terrifying and humiliating. 

"They took our clothes, they treated us badly, they had us chained up." Leyva said. "When they asked what I wanted to plead, I just wanted to cry it was so humiliating." 

Her lawyer told her to plead guilty, she said: "Why fight your case? Take the deal."

After a month in detention, Leyva was deported to Nogales, Son.. 

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Jose Tornez, 43, lived in Phoenix for 18 years with his wife and daughters before he was picked up by immigration authorities while driving and was held in prison before he was released on March 6. 

As Tornez spoke, Maryada Vallet sat next to him and listened to his story. 

"It’s astonishing," Vallet said afterward. "There’s a constant reminder that family ties is what drives people to cross."

Tornez’s wife has sent letters and photographs, but Tornez worries that he won’t be able to get back to his family.

“It’s very hard to cross and it’s getting harder,” he said.

His wife has also sent a letter to the White House asking for help, but Tornez dismisses it: "Obama is like Arpaio, they’re going to keep prosecuting people."

In many ways, Tornez is right. 

Officials pursue criminalization 

According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University, the top-ranked federal conviction filed in U.S. district courts continues to be "reentry of deported alien."

In January 2015, justice officials reported 5,874 new immigration cases, up over 2.5 percent from the previous month. Of those, more than 2,000 were charged with reentry. 

This follows a process that started in 2005 when Operation Streamline was first developed in El Paso and reached its apogee in 2011 — when nearly half of federal immigration prosecutions were based on criminalizing reentry. 

And, this has continued even as overall apprehensions have declined. 

Data from TRAC also shows that 97 percent of the people charged with immigration offenses are convicted. 

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Crossing 

At Kino, the group also met Gaston Garcia, 46, who plans to cross the border in the next week. 

Garcia has a wife and four children in Phoenix, and has tried to cross at least four times, each time unsuccessfully. This last time, he was handed a voluntary return form and told to sign it or face months of detention.

"I signed it because they were yelling at me and told me I would be away for a very long time," Garcia said.

He’s ready to cross, but the coyote he’s contacted to help him cross hasn’t told him exactly how. 

"I’m worried about crossing the desert," said Garcia. "I know it’s dangerous, but that won’t stop me."

"I think we will look back on this program and these outcomes as a shameful episode in our country’s history," said Launius. 

The trial of the 12 protesters is scheduled to continue through Wednesday. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of charges each activist is facing in the trial.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Jose Tornez sits with Maryada Vallet at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora. Vallet is on trial for her role in a Oct. 2013 protest that stopped two buses carrying around 70 immigrants bound for federal prosecution under a controversial federal program called Operation Streamline.