The New Jim Crow: Sham Trials the Norm for Mexicans in Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. -- "Arizona resembles the deep South of the pre-civil rights era," Pima County Legal Defender Isabel Garcia asserts. "Here, you can kill a Mexican and impunity reigns.”

To drive her point home, Garcia invites me to Tucson's federal court to witness "Operation Streamline" firsthand. This operation, begun in January 2008, consists of "show trials" during which 70 migrants are paraded before a judge and in less than one hour, and virtually all are found guilty (three cases were dismissed the day I was there) of illegally entering the country. They were also charged with felonies, but these were summarily dismissed to ensure conviction of the lesser charge. Most got between 30 and 180 days.

The courtroom was essentially divided or segregated by phenotype and appearance. There was not one light-skinned defendant. All of the defendants were dark, short, simply dressed and handcuffed. They were chained around their waists, wrists and ankles. Some limped. Everyone else was in suits.

All of this creates an aura of something other than a judicial proceeding.

The only words the defendants uttered were "presente," "si," "no," and "culpable" or “guilty." After being sentenced, one defendant, while being escorted out, shot a volley of questions to his court-appointed lawyer. His lawyer patted him on the back and told him everything would be all right. These 10 seconds are what seem to pass for legal counsel.

Every day, of the 1,000 migrants apprehended by immigration agents in Arizona, 70 are "randomly" selected and processed like cattle through Tucson's federal court. The objective is to criminalize these migrants and have them spend time in the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), thereby serving as a disincentive for other would-be migrants.

It's a very sweet deal for the CCA – it receives $11 million per month from the federal government. It's difficult to characterize this as other than a for-profit scam because it actually does nothing to address the problems associated with Mexico-U.S. migration.

It's difficult to imagine that such a fraudulent and tax-wasting "operation" can continue into the Obama administration. Aside from the obvious – that the federal government is flat broke and can no longer afford sweetheart contracts for private prisons – the practice of criminalizing migrants appears to contravene all international covenants regulating the movement of human beings.

These daily sham trials are possible only since 9/11. President Bush has pushed policies on the basis of fear. This has permitted politicians, bureaucrats and talk show extremists to conflate migration with drug smuggling and terrorism. Of course, none of the defendants were charged with any of these crimes.

These sham trials are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In the past few years, Arizona voters have passed several propositions that restrict the human and due process rights of migrants. This is part of a larger dehumanizing climate. Since the mid-1990s, Derechos Humanos – a human rights organization co-founded by Garcia – has tallied more than 5,000 deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, attributable to death from exhaustion, dehydration or drowning. Most of these are preventable, as federal policies have intentionally funneled these migrants into the inhospitable Arizona Sonora desert. Incidentally, immigration authorities tout the operation as a means to stop the deaths.

Some are hoping that with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano heading the Department of Homeland Security, things should be better along the border. Nationally, she has cultivated an image of moderation. Yet Garcia – who recently received the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award – notes that this image is pure public relations: Napolitano has always emphasized a law enforcement (militarization and the National Guard) approach to immigration. Her departure, however, may indeed see things turn for the worse because the state will now be firmly in the control of the Republican Party – a party that nowadays is virtually synonymous with virulent anti-immigration policies.

For those who understand immigration to be an economic and human rights issue, a humane solution may be forthcoming from Obama's Labor Department, slated to be headed by California Congresswoman Hilda Solis. It is not a guarantee, but it should be a radical departure from the current administration's sham policies.


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