Thursday, December 10, 2015

Operation Streamline

by Ruth Gomberg-Munoz

L Gipe
In October of 2015, I traveled with a group of Loyola health science students and faculty to southern Arizona for a 4-day immersion trip on the U.S.-Mexico border. On Monday, we took a short bus ride to the Federal Courthouse in downtown Tucson to witness a procedure called Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline prosecutes migrants caught at the U.S. border with Mexico on criminal charges of illegal entry—a charge that was considered a civil violation until 2005, but is now prosecuted as a federal crime that mandates at least 30 days in prison prior to deportation.

I was astounded by the degree of repetition. Sixty-seven men and two women, sitting in seven rows composed of some ten seats each, all facing the judge seated at the far wall of the court. Sixty-nine times that the judge repeated a variant of this question: “Is it true that you are not a citizen of the United States and that you entered Southern Arizona from Mexico without coming through a port of entry?” Followed by this question: “How do you plead?” Sixty-nine times that a person—a father, a mother, a daughter, a son—responded, “culpable.” Guilty. Sixty-nine criminal convictions carrying federal prison sentences that ranged in length from 30 to 180 days. Sixty-nine times that a man wearing a suit and blue latex gloves cleaned sixty-nine translation headsets with Clorox wipes as he took them from the defendants filing past. Sixty-nine people who shuffled, shackled at the ankles, wrists, and waist, through a door on the far right wall of the courtroom, headed to serve out their sentences in federal prison and await their subsequent deportations.

I was astounded by the break in repetition. The fourteenth time that the judge asked her questions, a tall man dressed in camouflage hesitated briefly before replying. “It doesn’t matter if I waive my rights,” he said clearly into his microphone. “No one will listen to me anyway. I will just return to my country and eat beans.” His words echoed around the courtroom as defendants and spectators alike looked up in surprise. The judge, clearly stunned, repeated the question slowly in parts, as though the man had not understood her correctly. He answered her questions clearly and then added, “But it doesn’t matter what I say. No one will listen to me anyway.” A current of amusement and curiosity now rippled around the courtroom. The fifty or so remaining defendants began speaking with each other for the first time since the procedure began. They turned to one another, briefly touching shoulders and whispering behind barely-concealed grins. The shackles that bound their wrists and ankles tinkled like wind chimes as they shifted in their seats. The spectators murmured to each other, many smiling in surprised encouragement.

L Gipe
A U.S. Marshall approached the rows and sternly ordered the migrants to stop talking. The murmurs quieted, but the modest rebellion had not yet run its course. Over the course of the following two hours, several more people spoke up to request more time with their attorney, to interrupt the steamrollered proceedings, to delay their incarceration. The facilitator who led our group later commented that this was the first time she had seen the proceedings disrupted; the continual interruptions extended the hearing for nearly an hour.

It would be a mistake to interpret the tall man’s reference to eating beans to his culinary taste. It is more likely that he was referencing the poverty in his home country of Mexico, where many poor people subsist on staples such as beans. He was also likely nodding to his positioning in the U.S. racial order, where for more than one hundred years Mexican migrants like him have been variously denigrated as “beaners,” “wetbacks,” and “illegals.” Programs like Operation Streamline reinforce the racial subjugation of Latino immigrants, and as a result, nearly half of all Federal prison inmates in the United States are Latino, most of them imprisoned on immigration violations.

“Tough crowd today,” remarked the U.S. Marshall to the man with the blue gloves as they passed near my row toward the end of the proceeding. Moments later, the tall man in camouflage glanced around the courtroom, and I caught his eye and smiled. He smiled back and nodded quickly: a moment of humanity in a sea of injustice. “What would have happened,” a member of our group wondered later, “if we had stood up and cheered” when the tall man spoke? What, indeed? The day is over now and the opportunity passed, save for the lingering possibility that one day we will all have the tall man’s courage to speak up.

Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Loyola University Chicago and Associate Editor for North American Dialogue.

Images created by Lawrence Gipe.

Fact Sheet: Operation Streamline. No More Deaths. March 2012

Santos F. Detainees Sentenced in Seconds in "Streamline" Justice on Patrol. NY Times, Feb 02, 2012.

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