Imagine a typical television drama court case. Then merge that with the assembly line. The result is Operation Streamline, how the federal government processes accused illegal entry cases – at a clip that many fast food restaurants can’t match.
At 7 a.m. this morning several small busses and one large bus arrived at the Federal Courthouse on Church Street. Before most of the city had left for work, these vehicles pulled into a garage, the door shut, and dozens and men and a few women charged with illegal entry unloaded into the courthouse. This happens every weekday in Las Cruces.
By 8:30 a.m. a third-floor courtroom is hectic as translators, public defenders, and U.S. attorneys move about. In the jury box and the first two rows of the gallery sit 38 men handcuffed and shackled. Four women sit at a table also handcuffed and shackled. All but six stand accused of entering the country illegally.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
It is important to note that this is a preliminary hearing. Various agents of the Department of Homeland Security have filed a criminal complaint accusing these suspects of illegal entry or illegal reentry, but there are not yet formal charges or any determination of guilt.
The word “citizen” does not appear in the Bill of Rights. These suspects have all the constitutional rights as any other suspect.
Fast Food Justice
Their first time in a courtroom, a translator hastily explained their rights. Given the complexity of constitutional rights, it is doubtful a native speaker could comprehend the scope of these rights in such a short time. The suspects would meet with a public defender for just moments. Then they would be fitted with headphones for a translator who would sit in the corner of the room with a paper over her mouth to control the volume.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin R. Sweazea would arrive at 8:42 a.m. “All rise.”
The first five non-immigration cases were handled in nine minutes. Then the assembly line began.
Six men were called up together. The judge would ask questions. Were they advised of their rights? Down the line, “Si, señor.” Less than a second apiece.
The same with the second and third questions.Do they swear to tell the truth? Do they understand that having sworn to tell the truth, they can be charged with perjury? The first six were led off by U.S. Marshals, and four men and two women took their place.
A Running Clock
A red LCD clock at the front of the courtroom keeps time down to the second.
The process was the same. On average, the first 12 defendants were in front of the judge for 38 seconds.
As suspects empty from the jury box to the lecterns in front of the judge, a Marshal refills the jury box with suspects from the gallery. He repeats this process after each group stands before the judge.
Six more men. Thirty-two and a half seconds apiece.
A lone man with a slightly different charge. One minute, thirty-seven seconds.
Six men and one woman were next. The public defender questioned one case, so the man went back to his seat. This slowed the average to 44 seconds.
Seven more men. Thirty point four seconds apiece.
Then a non-immigration defendant. Two minutes, 30 seconds.
Two illegal entrants who were material witnesses. Three minutes, 21 seconds.
Then back to the case where the public defender had an issue. Two minutes, 10 seconds.
Less than two minutes later, the “all rise” for the judge to leave. Justice doled out to 42 people in exactly 50 minutes, including the time to shuffle from place to place shackled at the hands and legs.
Entry vs. Re-entry
Operation Streamline began in South Texas under then-President George W. Bush in 2005. It moved re-entry (i.e., individuals accused of crossing the border two or more times) from immigration court into criminal court.
With no other charges, a conviction of a second illegal entry into the United States carries a serious penalty. Up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Under the Obama administration, Operation Streamline rapidly expanded. By 2014, however, the program was used only for re-entries, which is a felony.
In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged prosecutors to include first-time illegal entries.
This crime is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 6 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. However, the majority of defendants who plead guilty are deported with “time served” and no fine. By moving these cases to criminal court, however, it guarantees that each defendant will spend more time in an ICE detention center – the majority of which are run by private, for-profit prisons.
The practice helps ICE meet its immigrant detention bed quota, which guarantees for-profit prison companies that at least 34,000 detention beds will be filled every day. ICE pays for this number even if the beds aren’t filled.
Thus, Operation Streamline is likely to cost taxpayers more money than handling first-time illegal entrants in immigration court.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on Operation Streamline.
Updated: 7:11 a.m. March 2, 2018.