The defendants, most of them young men in rumpled clothes, shuffle into the courtroom early in the afternoon, their movements restricted by shackles around ankles and wrists. They number about 70, and soon they fill row after row of seats before a magistrate judge in United States District Court here.
Eight at a time, they stand in front of the judge to swiftly accept pleas and utter “culpable,” declaring themselves guilty of entering the country illegally, primarily through the Arizona desert. The Operation Streamline hearing ends in just about two hours, but some have lasted as little as a half hour. The convicted migrants, most from Mexico and Central America, then file out of the courtroom with dejected looks.
In America’s attempts to address illegal immigration, Operation Streamline is a stark front line. Started in 2005, when arrests for illegal border crossings were peaking, its clear goal is to get tough on undocumented immigrants. Once simply shuffled back to their homelands, undocumented immigrants now face criminal charges under Operation Streamline in an attempt to discourage them from coming.
In Washington, support seems to be solid and increasing. The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013 – seen as a moderate, bipartisan effort – would have tripled Operation Streamline’s budget.
Yet among immigration activists, opposition has, if anything, grown fiercer. In October 2013, activists chained themselves to two buses carrying migrants to the courthouse. The program shut down that day.
On one hand, Operation Streamline represents the worst fears of immigration activists – humans herded and jailed for crossing the border to find jobs and visit loved ones. But it is also an example of the sort of practical approach to enforcement that conservatives demand for immigrants who break the law.
In that way, Operation Streamline gives a glimpse at precisely the sorts of compromises that will have to struck if a deal on comprehensive immigration reform is to be struck.
Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco, one of seven judges who take turns presiding over the afternoon courtroom hearings, says that the fast-track justice dispensed to those who sneak across the Mexico border is more than fair.
“The defendant in effect is getting a break,” the judge adds. “People don’t like the way it looks, but, quite frankly, a country has to do something, or at least has to appear to be addressing a problem.”
The way it looks – with cases handled in bulk – became the solution to counter sharp increases in the flow of illegal immigration. In 2005, the border patrol reported the arrests of more than 1 million people who had entered the country along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border without legal documents.
Started in Texas, the Department of Homeland Security program was expanded to the Tucson sector of the border patrol in 2008. Border arrests dropped by nearly two-thirds after 2005 because of stepped-up enforcement and tepid economy, though they rose to 479,000 in 2014.
Before Operation Streamline, people without a serious criminal record caught entering the country illegally were quickly deported or referred to civil immigration court proceedings. Now, under the program, offenders meet with a lawyer briefly, agree to a plea that means lesser jail time, and then leave the courtroom with a conviction and a sentence of up to six months.
Initially, the program snared many first-time border crossers, but Judge Velasco says it focuses on repeat offenders with a crime conviction these days.
“Some of the crimes that we’re dealing with are misdemeanors or felony DUIs, shoplifting, assaults,” he says. “Usually, they’re state crimes.”
That also includes second-time border crossers, since the second illegal entry is a felony.
To immigration attorney Margo Cowan, this is no way to deal with people trying to find jobs or reunite with family. They don’t deserve to be treated like criminals.
“These are people who cannot – because our system does not function – present themselves at the border and get a permit,” she says. “This is the only way they can come; to put this kind of human migration in a criminal context is abhorrent.”
She says the repercussions on convicted migrants can be devastating. Although an illegal reentry conviction carries a maximum of two years in prison, a migrant who has a previous deportation and an aggravated felony conviction can get up to 20 years behind bars. Migrants prosecuted under Operation Streamline also risk a years-long ban on returning to the US through legal means.
Mayada Vallet, one of the activists who chained herself to the buses in 2013, says she took part in the protest to bring attention to the unjust treatment migrants receive under Operation Streamline, calling them “my heroes.”
In the past five years, illegal reentry has been the top criminal charge in federal district courts, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University. “Immigration” accounted for 87 percent of all prosecutions, according to the group’s analysis, released in November and based on Justice Department data.
Those rising numbers are reflected in the nation’s federal prisons, where 22,526 people were serving time for immigration violations as of March 2013, up from 10,156 in 1999, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
With Republican lawmakers intent on tightening border security as part of any deal in Congress to overhaul the immigration system, the criminal prosecution of migrants through programs like Operation Streamline is likely to continue.
The idea of sending a strong message that you can no longer come into the US without facing serious consequences makes sense from a law-enforcement point of view, says David Martin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville.
“Increasing the criminal consequences or increasing the incidence of the criminal consequences is a pretty standard way of responding in a situation where levels of violation have been quite high,” he adds. “Crossing the border after you’ve been deported is a more serious crime.”
Back in his chambers, Velasco puts it this way: “No matter what your immigration policy is, it’s never going to allow everybody to come in.”