Abusing Immigrants, Enriching Parasitic Attorneys -- on Your Dime
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This article first appeared on TruthDig.
When an architect named Norman Pfeiffer designed the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., he claimed to have been inspired by its natural surroundings. “From afar,” Pfeiffer told Architecture Week, “the desert tells little of what it knows. ... But upon closer scrutiny it reveals its true self.”
The 413,000-square-foot, $67.3 million monolith that Pfeiffer erected blends easily with the pale desert landscape flanking downtown Tucson. The earth-toned structure appears so bland a casual passer-by might not even take a second glance. Only a few observers have ventured inside to witness the spectacle that takes place on the third floor.
The show begins each day at 1 p.m., when about 75 undocumented immigrants just captured along the U.S.-Mexico border are marched into the room in leg irons and manacles and compelled all at once to plead guilty to entering the country illegally. Although the proceeding has the trappings of a trial, the defendants never challenge the charges against them, and are clearly discouraged from doing so. They know their fate is preordained: deportation to a border town, separation from their families and occasionally a few months in a privatized prison.
The daily trials are mandated by a program called Operation Streamline. When Streamline was announced by President George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security in 2005, Border Patrol officials argued that trying undocumented immigrants and keeping records of their illegal entries would deter them from coming back over the border. But over the two years since its 2008 inception, the program has failed to achieve any of its stated goals; only the shrinking job market has prevented impoverished Latin American migrants from venturing across the border in search of work.
Since Streamline arrived in Arizona in 2008 it has morphed into a pipeline transferring millions in federal funds into the state’s anemic economy. Almost everyone involved in the program is lining their pockets with taxpayer money, from a controversial private prison company to a rapidly growing pool of courthouse criminal defense attorneys to the grim federal marshals who herd migrants in and out of the courtroom. Thanks to Streamline, the number of public defenders has nearly doubled in Tucson, the Border Patrol has bolstered its ranks with new agents and the local prison industry is booming. The program represents the entrenchment of a parallel nonproductive economy promoting abuse behind the guise of law enforcement and crime deterrence.
Immigrant rights advocates appeared to have scored a decisive victory against Streamline when the 9th Circuit federal court of appeals ruled last Dec. 2 that trying defendants en masse violated established rules on legal procedure. “We act within a system maintained by rules of procedure,” Senior Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, a Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, concluded in his opinion. “We cannot dispense with the rules without setting a precedent subversive of the structure.”
The Obama administration and the Border Patrol, however, have sought to comply with the court’s ruling without having to scrap Streamline. They have ordered magistrates to hear each plea one by one when a group of migrants is brought into the court, turning already grinding hour-and-a-half proceedings into three-hour-long ordeals. “It’s not unprecedented. It can be done,” insisted Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Arizona who was chief of staff to Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano when she was Arizona governor.
I witnessed Streamline last Nov. 30, just days before the court’s decision blocked the government from compelling migrants to plead en masse. Isabel Garcia, a public defender and fiery national immigrant rights icon, invited me to report the proceeding. Last summer, Garcia led a demonstration to the courthouse gates, directing the community’s indignation against what she described as unconstitutional factory justice. Local right-wing radio hosts and anti-immigrant activists have clamored for the city to oust her from her job as public defender. So far, Garcia’s antagonists have failed in their crusade.