By Rachel Beaty
This is no ordinary courtroom and these are no ordinary immigration court proceedings.
The jingling and murmurings in English, Spanish and Spanglish tend to overwhelm and unsettle the newcomer. On the right-hand side of the courtroom, 70 exhausted migrants sit in their grungy and tattered clothes. Headphones dangle from their ears and shackles jingle from their hands and feet.
They are tuned into the interpreter’s audio feed, listening intently to the legal jargon that will eventually determine their fates. Most of these migrants are on the final leg of their unsuccessful journey across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Yesterday they were trekking through southern Arizona’s rugged and unforgiving desert terrain. Today they are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes 15 at a time, in front of the federal magistrate judge. The judge asks them to respond to the question: guilty or not guilty?
A ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibits multiple defendants from entering their pleas at the same time. As a result, each defendant enters their plea individually.
From 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, these Operation Streamline proceedings are conducted in the Honorable William D. Browning’s Special Proceedings Courtroom. Five days a week 70 dark-skinned migrants shuffle in front of the judge, accompanied by their lawyer, and plead guilty to the charge of “illegal entry.” Every day taxpayers shell out approximately $50,000 to “deter” these migrants from attempting what is termed “illegal reentry.” Is this money well spent?
Operation Streamline: A History
The Department of Homeland Security and its agencies—namely Border Patrol– and the federal court system first launched Operation Streamline in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas. Since then it has expanded into other Southwestern states, namely New Mexico, California and Arizona. Border Patrol officials implemented the program in the Tucson Sector in January 2008.
Tucson’s Operation Streamline is more commonly referred to as the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative (ADPI) by U.S. Customs and Border Protection because, unlike other Streamline programs in the country, Arizona’s program only prosecutes 70 migrants a day as opposed to the standard 100. This is due to a lack of space in the federal courthouse. At present, Tucson’s federal courthouse holds 145 prisoners/detainees and of these 70 are Streamlined migrants. Upon sentencing, migrants are either deported or shipped off to a detention center, opening up another 70 spaces in the courthouse.
Since its inception, Streamline has been touted by both Border Patrol and Homeland Security officials as the new “crown jewel” of immigration policy. As officials explain it, Streamline is meant to instill in the migrant’s minds that he/she is breaking the law and that there are tangible consequences for doing so.
“Before, I would sometimes see the same guy three times in one day,” says Mario Escalante, a spokesman for Border Patrol. Ten years ago, as Escalante recalls, the border was considerably more fluid and traversable. For those migrants who crossed then, the change in border policy has been a visceral one.
“We needed to find something to deter them,” explains Escalante. “We needed to let them know that if you are going to break the law …[you] are going to be punished for it.” In the case of migrants processed through Operation Streamline, that punishment might be jail time.
Streamlining: An Explanation
The amount of jail time each migrant serves depends on a number of variables. In general, three types of cases are presented to the court in Streamline cases. First, there are the first-time offenders, those individuals who have never been caught crossing the border illegally and have no prior criminal history. According to Judge Bernardo Velasco, one of the federal magistrate judges that preside over Operation Streamline cases, such cases make up the majority of the 70 presented. While these migrants are subject to the judge’s admonishment, they receive a ‘time-served’ sentence and are often deported the same day. The average migrant in this case costs the taxpayer about $275—this includes housing and procedural/court fees.
The second type of case involves migrants who have a criminal history— offenses such as DUI, domestic abuse, possession of marijuana, etc—but no prior deportations. As Criminal Justice Panel (CJP) attorney Richard Bacal notes, these individuals seem to be the only defendants that benefit from the system because they are only given 10-15 days in jail then they are deported. Each migrant in this case will cost the taxpayer approximately $1,250-$1,850.
Finally, the third case to go before the judge involves migrants who have prior deportations. These individuals are sentenced to up to six months in jail depending on how many deportations they have on their record. Taxpayers pay around $3,250 for 30 days and $18,250 for the maximum of 180 days.
On rare occasions, judges will move to dismiss a migrant’s case completely because he/she is a minor, speaks an indigenous language, has documentation, or is claiming political asylum. Such cases still cost the taxpayer approximately $275.
According to numbers generated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Operation Streamline has been incredibly successful.
“Before, ten years ago when I first started, we were apprehending 2,000 people a day here in the Tucson Sector,” says Escalante, “now we are apprehending 400 or so.”
The initial implication here is that Streamline is deterring migrants from crossing illegally. However, as Escalante quickly clarifies, the decline in apprehensions is not solely a result of Operation Streamline.
In Tucson, changes in the number of apprehensions have been a result of several issues. Since 2000, Border Patrol ranks have grown considerably nationwide, from 12,000 agents in 2006 to 20,000 today. The increase in Border Patrol agents works in conjunction with the introduction of more sophisticated technology and infrastructure—i.e. fencing and video cameras—which have all resulted in better surveillance and enforcement.
Immigration specialists also seem to agree that the current economic recession has profoundly influenced migration trends, given that most migrants venture to the U.S. for employment.
How effective can the program be if approximately 18 percent of all apprehended migrants are Streamlined—70 of 400?
For Escalante, this percentage could have a significant impact on the migrant mentality in general. “It’s word of mouth,” says Escalante, “people get shackled and stay in jail for days. They don’t want to go through it again.” Furthermore, having been through the Streamline process, it is almost certain that “they go home and tell people what they went through,” says Escalante.
“A lot of this [Streamline] is psychological,” he continues.
Statistics on the success of Operation Streamline are such that neither opponents nor supporters can make any unequivocal statements. The best indicator is the courtroom itself.
“Now we are getting a lot of people who have already been through Streamline,” says Jay Sagar a federal public defender. Every two weeks Sagar is assigned a Streamline case. “One judge,” says Sagar, “talking to a defendant, said that he had sentenced that same man two weeks earlier.”
A Question of Costs and Benefits: So how much is Streamline costing taxpayers?
Many of Operation Streamline’s functions have been outsourced to private companies, such as Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), and private attorneys. Courts contract these private lawyers because of the shortage of federal lawyers, says Sagar.
“But it’s [definitely] more costly per Streamline defendant to have private counsels,” says Sagar.
Of the 20 attorneys that argue Streamline cases daily, 18 of them are private attorneys from the Criminal Justice Panel (CJP). Lawyers like Richard Bacal charge $110 an hour for their services and they log a total of approximately 5-6 hours of billable time a day.
The two federal public defenders assigned to Streamline cases in any given day are paid roughly half of that.
If 18 lawyers are paid about $660 a day for their duties, the bill for the taxpayer totals approximately $11,880. Adding the fees of public defenders, the bill increases to $12,540. Based on this simple math, around $60,000 is being infused into the Streamline process every week. This figure does not reflect the added expense of transporting and housing these migrants.
When asked about the salience of the system regarding effective spending of taxpayer dollars, Bacal responded by saying, “I don’t know if it’s viable for taxpayers, but it is for me.”
Since 1994 the private prison industry—most notably, the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA)—has grown considerably. From 1994 to 2008 the number of in-custody prisoners ballooned, almost tripling from 18,282 to 56,753, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Public prisons could not keep up with the demand, so private prison companies were contracted to construct detention facilities.
The flooding of prisons, both private and public, has been most pronounced in the Southwest border region—namely Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. It is no coincidence that prisons in these states have swollen drastically. The State Department confirms that 30 percent of this increase in prisoners is a result of charges brought against individuals for immigration offenses.
In Arizona, the impact of immigration legislation on the prison system is all too apparent as Arizona hosts the largest prison facility in the country. As reported by Detention Watch Network in a 2008 study, the small community of Florence, Ariz.—with a population of 18,000—is also home to 3,897 prisoners. In other words, the Central Arizona Detention Center’s prison population is equal to more than a quarter of Florence’s entire population.
Members of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) insist that Streamline has proved lucrative for private prison industries. As of 2008, the private prison company Correctional Corporation of America held almost half of the country’s detained migrants. It is estimated that in 2007, 40 percent of CCA’s annual revenue came directly from contracts with ICE and the US Marshal Service. John Ferguson, CCA’s president and CEO, expects more business to roll his way as more migrants are detained and in need of housing.
Each detained migrant residing in a private prison incurs a daily cost of $98.95 for the taxpayer, according to the U.S. Marshal Service. This is in comparison to the $67.38 that this same migrant would cost the taxpayer if he or she were in a public facility.
According to Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a University of Arizona professor conducting a study on Streamline, $11 million is spent on detaining migrants each month.
While not all of these detained migrants have gone through this specific program, Streamline has undoubtedly added to the total cost to the American taxpayer to detain illegal immigration offenders.
Is it worth it?
When asked about the financial aspect of Streamline, Escalante responded with another question: “What’s the cost of us being safe and sleeping safely at night?”
As it turns out, certain parties seem to be enjoying the lucrative side of Streamline, namely private attorneys and private prison companies. For Rubio-Goldsmith and other critics of Operation Streamline, the psychological and humanitarian costs far outweigh the financial ones. Seeing the shuffling of these dark-skinned bodies—donning tattered clothes and worn-down shoes—has an impact.
“I’ve taken people to see it and they walk out in tears,” says Rubio-Goldsmith, “you see people hurt and having to walk around shackled.”
“It’s utterly degrading,” she continues, “the majority have no criminal history and they are being humiliated.”
“It’s a caricature of justice,” she concludes.