Forum — From the October 2017 issue

Tucson, Arizona

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Every weekday at the federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, undocumented migrants are gathered in a courtroom and made to face the judge’s pulpit like shackled parishioners. Most of them are young men wearing T-shirts, sneakers, and jeans. Called up in groups of five, they are each asked the same incantatory set of questions: Do you understand the rights you’re giving up? Are you pleading voluntarily and of your own free will? Are you a citizen of the United States? Did you enter southern Arizona from Mexico without coming through a designated port of entry? How do you plead? Culpable, the defendants say one by one. Guilty.

Using a stopwatch, I time the proceedings: In less than four minutes, each group of five is convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to 180 days. All in all, the court can adjudicate as many as seventy-five cases in as little as an hour and a half.

The dogged rhythm of the proceedings means that any deviation is conspicuous. I notice when defendants pause for too long, when they interrupt the judge’s questioning to admit they don’t understand, when they tremble at the microphone as they say, “I had to leave because they wanted to kill me,” or “The money in my country isn’t enough, or simply “Thank you, I’m sorry.” I notice when a man from Honduras refuses the black headset that relays the Spanish translations from the court interpreter. He has three children born in the United States, his lawyer explains; he has made his life in this country. The man answers the judge in confident English, as if to assert, I belong here.

Operation Streamline began in 2005, a year in which border apprehensions climbed above 1.1 million. The program was conceived of by the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Justice as a way to reduce recidivism and alleviate the overburdening of the Southwestern courts by sentencing undocumented border crossers en masse. After a few years, Streamline was reserved for “repeat offenders,” migrants deported from the United States at least once before who were thus facing a felony charge of reentry in addition to a misdemeanor charge of “entry without inspection.” Migrants agreed to plead guilty to the misdemeanor and waived their constitutional right to appeal in exchange for the government’s dismissal of the more serious felony charge and associated court fees. The public defenders who represent these cases differ widely in their assessment of the program — some consider it a good deal, but many others believe it silences their clients in the name of expediency.

This spring, border crossings reached their lowest point in seventeen years, with fewer than 11,200 apprehensions recorded in March. Border crossings had been trending downward for years, but an even more dramatic drop was recorded in the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration. Conventional wisdom holds that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and his perceived efforts to increase border enforcement and domestic deportation have encouraged many potential migrants to bide their time, to wait and see whether crossing will become more difficult or punishments more severe. Another line of thinking holds that Trump doesn’t need to implement new policies — his rhetoric alone is enough. By fostering an environment that is hostile and unwelcoming to migrants, the administration may be successfully persuading prospective crossers to stay home or go elsewhere, and pressuring those who are already here to “self-deport.”

With only a trickle of border crossers eligible for Operation Streamline, attorneys began to question the necessity of the program. There were days when no more than six migrants passed through the cavernous courtroom — a mass hearing without the mass.

In April, the newly minted attorney general, Jeff Sessions, traveled to the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, to announce his intention to “bring the full weight of both the immigration courts and federal criminal enforcement” down on undocumented immigrants. “This is the Trump era,” he declared. A month later, Sessions directed U.S. prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense . . . including mandatory minimum sentences.”

Following Sessions’s directives, Streamline rules were adjusted to once again allow for the prosecution of first-time entrants. This had the immediate effect of expanding the pool of prosecutable border crossers, giving the program a much-needed numbers boost. By procuring misdemeanor convictions for first-time entrants, Streamline can now dole out a higher proportion of convictions among the dwindling number of arrivals, saddling them with a criminal record and a history of deportation without bogging down the federal courts with individually litigated cases.

The Trump Administration has also taken steps to expand which migrants are prioritized for deportation as “criminals.” Under Obama, enforcement was focused on those who had committed serious crimes. But now, even those with immigration-only misdemeanors are being targeted for deportation, as are those who have been charged with crimes but not convicted. This means that under Trump, anyone who has ever received a misdemeanor conviction through Operation Streamline is now a priority for enforcement sweeps, imprisonment, and deportation.

Some defense lawyers and human rights advocates in Arizona’s borderlands argue that these changes should be understood as an extension of what came before. When asked about the “Trump effect” in Streamline courts, one federal judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, answered simply: “It was already awful.” Many attorneys and judges doubt that hard-line immigration prosecution deters would-be migrants anyway. “They don’t fear American prisons,” said Joel Parris, a career public defender. “They fear violent existence, a life without money and opportunity.”

Another attorney, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned whether deterrence is even the government’s true objective. Border crossers grease the wheels of a massive immigration-enforcement complex that needs numbers to justify its existence and ensure employment. By criminally prosecuting more migrants without increasing detention times, the Trump Administration can have its cake and eat it too.

In June, as I spent day after day in Streamline’s immense courtroom, my overwhelming impression was of assembly-line justice, a vast machinery quickly and dispassionately grinding away at the lives of migrants who were forgotten as soon as they were named. “It’s the same thing seventy-five times in a row,” the judge I spoke to confessed. “Sometimes it’s like an out-of-body experience, and I don’t remember what I’m doing or where I am or what I said.”

Such proceedings inevitably desensitize people to the humanity of migrants. “We are being made to look at everyone the same,” Parris told me. He is certain that Americans would never accept such a structure for people we consider our own. To stand by as policymakers perfect a mechanism for rejecting outsiders, he warns, is to become blind to the individual lives of those it condemns.

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is a former U.S. Border Patrol agent. His first book, The Line Becomes a River, will be published next year by Riverhead Books. Cantú is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award.

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