by Rev. Randy Mayer and Christian Ramirez
The clank of chains resonates through the federal courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, as a group of 70 fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers shuffle along with shackles on their ankles linked to handcuffs on their wrists. This was just one of hundreds of draconian, rapid-fire mass trials of individuals, most of whom are only trying to reunite with their families in the U.S. or flee persecution in their home countries. This is the cruel and costly process of criminalizing migration, the most egregious form of which is known as Streamline.
While this version only happens in Tucson, brave people who make the decision to risk life and limb to provide for their families or find safe haven are now charged with illegal entry and illegal reentry nationwide. Nonetheless, the district of Arizona ranks second in the nation for immigration-related criminal convictions.
When lay leaders from the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, a member- organization of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, first observed these proceedings a few years ago, they were sickened by what they witnessed. Since then, it has become our spiritual obligation to bring fellow people of faith and conscience to the courtroom to be a quiet presence of solidarity for the migrants who are corralled through this unjust process. Over the years, we have watched the proceedings become worse, with higher charges and longer sentences. Often the scene is unbearable as the hopes of 70 families being reunited or finding safety from persecution unravel with the word “Culpable” or “Guilty” muttered by the individuals to the Judge.
Migrants referred for these mass hearings meet with their court appointed lawyers for fewer than 10 minutes and make hasty, pressured decisions that impact their ability to reunite with their families and pursue new opportunities. By the glossy look in their eyes it is clear that most, if not all the people facing charges in the courtroom, have not had their rights properly explained and do not realize they are being subjected to a system of excessive punishment. Yet this is the purpose of Operation Streamline, to move so quickly that no one can object, to keep individuals in the dark, and to erode the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution which upholds due process as a fundamental American value.
These costly, unjust prosecutions for those hoping to be reunited with family or seeking safety are lauded as a successful deterrent strategy by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other policymakers. If politicians took the time to visit border communities and meet eye-to-eye with these family members, as many of the humanitarian groups such as the Samaritans, Kino Border Initiative, and No More Deaths do on a daily basis, they would see how these proceedings violate our nation’s basic principles of fairness and justice. A 2013 study by University of Arizona students, In the Shadow of the Wall, found that people will face any hardship to reunite with their families. Love and family ties know no borders, and criminalizing the basic human right to reunite with loved ones is shameful.
A recent Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General Report on Streamline found that Border Patrol is unable to demonstrate that Streamline prosecutions deter unauthorized migration. The report also found that Border Patrol may be referring asylum seekers for criminal prosecution, a clear violation of the government’s obligations under both domestic and international law.
Operation Streamline has also drastically increased the profits of corporations that run both federal prisons and immigrant detention centers, some of which have recently started to jail mothers and children fleeing violence and persecution. These private prisons receive about $3 billion each year in revenue. Although the recent OIG report noted that government authorities do not know how many millions of taxpayers dollars are used to fund Streamline, estimates from the U.S. Marshals Service indicate that the incarceration costs in Tucson alone amount to $63 million per year.
In July, more than 170 civil rights, human rights, and faith-based organizations urged U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to end this costly, ineffective, and immoral program that erodes due process, violates human rights standards, and contributes to the unethical practice of mass incarceration for a profit in this country. Communities in the border region and faith communities from around the country are united in saying that this program needs to end.
Mayer is pastor of The Good Shepherd Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona. Ramirez is director of the Human Rights Program at the Alliance San Diego and staffs the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.