Inside NACDL: Responding to Operation Streamline

Inside NACDL Norman L. Reimer

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Who could possibly imagine the spectacle of 42 individuals brought into a U.S. district court, manacled at the ankles, wrists and waist, formally presented with criminal charges, entering guilty pleas and receiving sentence, all within one hour and eight minutes? Sound like fiction? Well, it’s not. It’s happening everyday in this country, and I can attest to it because I witnessed it in Tucson, Ariz.

“Operation Streamline” began in Del Rio, Texas, in December 2005. It has since been expanded to Laredo, Texas, and Arizona. The program consists of border patrol agents criminally prosecuting a small percentage of illegal border crossers — through an expedited procedure that brands 40 to 50 individuals a day in each participating jurisdiction with a federal misdemeanor conviction. Plans are already underway to increase this conviction assembly line to 100 a day. The idea is to make an irresistible offer to desperate people. Many of these people have risked their lives to rejoin family or seek work in the United States, and some may have a legitimate defense. In return for a speedy guilty plea to the misdemeanor of illegal entry without inspection, the government forgoes more serious charges, and defendants immediately receive a sentence of as little as time served to no more than six months in jail. They are then transported back to the Mexican border where they are set free, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs — even though they may be hundreds of miles from home.

The program punishes people with criminal convictions and the ensuing collateral consequences that may make it impossible for them to ever again enter the United States legally. And, if they illegally re-enter, they may be subject to felony prosecution. Even worse, lawyers have scant opportunity to perform adequate investigation to ascertain the availability of a viable defense, such as lack of proof of a border crossing or derivative U.S. citizenship.

In response to concerns about the expansion of Operation Streamline, NACDL President Carmen Hernandez empanelled a task force to study the issue. Co-Chaired by Vice President Cynthia Orr of Texas and board member Robert Hooker of Arizona, the task force has developed 15 recommendations that will be presented for consideration by the NACDL Board of Directors in New York in May. It was during our Mid-Winter Meeting in Tucson in February that Bob Hooker invited me to visit the federal court so that I could see Operation Streamline in action.

The sight of those 42 individuals, shuffling under the weight of their chains as they were brought into the courtroom of Magistrate Judge Hector C. Estrada at precisely 1:00 p.m., was enough to break your heart. They were all men, mostly thin and drawn, dressed in the shabby clothes they had worn during a perilous odyssey in which they crossed hundreds of miles of desert. Many had risked starvation or violent death at the hands of bandits.

The mass presentment and group guilty plea allocutions are unlike anything anyone has ever seen in a U.S. courtroom. For those few who plead guilty without a specific promise, there is a truncated sentencing proceeding in which the lawyers (each of whom has at least four clients in the group) and the condemned can address the court. It is then that you hear tales of unspeakable misery. One young man, probably in his late 20s, explained that he had lived most of his life in the United States until he was deported. He had crossed illegally to see his three children, all of whom are U.S. citizens. Another spoke of wanting to reunite with his elderly parents. And then there are those looking for work where they can make $5 an hour instead of $5 a day so they can provide for sick or elderly parents. And so it goes.

As a perversion of our criminal justice system, Operation Streamline deserves scrupulous attention by NACDL. As a manifestation of our nation’s immigration policy, it deserves scrupulous attention by every American. As one who practiced law in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, it is awfully hard to reconcile what I saw in that Tucson courtroom with the words inscribed on that once welcoming symbol to the world.

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