Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
A special Federal District court convenes every day at 1 pm in Tucson. All the benches, even the jury box, are filled with young people whose brown skin, black hair and indigenous features are common in a hundred tiny towns in Oaxaca or Guatemala. Their jeans, T-shirts and cheap tennis shoes show the dirt and wear from the long trek through northern Mexico, three days walking across the desert, and nights sleeping at the immigration detention center on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Presiding over one court session in June, Judge Jennifer Guerin called these defendants before her in groups of eight. They walked up in tiny waddling steps, heavy chains binding their ankles and wrists to their waists, and sat. Judge Guerin recited a litany of questions, translated into Spanish through headphones. “You’ve been charged with illegal entry, a criminal offense…at trial you would have the subpoena power of the court…you have certain rights,” she intones. At the end she asks anyone who doesn’t understand to stand up. No one does. She asks if they plead guilty. After a moment in which her question is translated, seventy voices mumble “Sí.”
Leaving the courtroom a young woman stumbles, eyes streaked with tears. A public defender tells the judge her feet are covered with blisters from walking through the wilderness. A boy no older than 13 or 14 searches the room with his eyes as he’s led away, perhaps seeking a friend or relative. No one seems older than 30, and most are much younger. They are today’s border crossers–the mostly indigenous youth of southern Mexico and Central America.
They all plead guilty to a federal criminal charge. Sentences run from time served to six months in a federal lockup run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
According to the Spanish news agency EFE, this new court process, dubbed Operation Streamline, convicted 5,187 migrants between January 14 and June 10. Isabel Garcia, who heads Derechos Humanos, a leading immigrants’ rights organization in southern Arizona, says the current daily quota of seventy chained defendants will soon be raised to 100–fifty tried on one shift, fifty on another. Twenty-one new federal prosecutors will handle the surge, with CCA detention facilities to house it.
A new bureaucracy is growing rapidly, thanks to drastic changes in immigration law enforcement. In past decades, migrants were treated very differently when caught without papers. They were allowed to leave voluntarily or were deported after being found guilty of an administrative infraction, the equivalent of a parking ticket.
Today’s migrants are being treated as criminals. The features pioneered in Tucson’s courtroom–serious federal criminal charges, mass trials of defendants in chains and incarceration–are becoming standard features of immigration raids from Postville, Iowa, to Los Angeles. State laws supplement federal statutes, and federal, state and local authorities cooperate closely to bring a large variety of criminal charges against migrants.