Grinding Justice

Operation Streamline costs millions, tramples the Constitution, treats migrants like cattle, doesn't work

Indeed, when Velasco's on the bench in the Special Proceedings Courtroom, where Tucson's daily Streamline hearings take place, the veteran magistrate burns through 70 defendants in just under 40 minutes.

During that time, he advises them of their rights, takes their pleas, sentences them—anywhere from time served to 180 days in custody—and has them out the door and on their way back to Mexico, to other parts of Latin America, or to a prison run by CCA.

"I wouldn't say it's pretty," Velasco says bluntly. "But I don't know of anywhere where it says things should be pretty."

Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco, one of seven Tucson magistrates who preside over Streamline hearings
Stephen Lemons
Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco, one of seven Tucson magistrates who preside over Streamline hearings
Migrants re-entering Mexico after having done time in a CCA prison
Dennis Gillman
Migrants re-entering Mexico after having done time in a CCA prison


Some Tucson magistrates take an hour and a half or more to get through these en masse hearings. But in Velasco's courtroom, defense lawyers joke they don't bother to sit down between clients, as they'll be back up on their feet in no time.

Velasco dispenses with the men and women in his court in seven-person bursts. The defendants before him are dressed in the dirty, sweaty clothes they were captured in, their hands shackled to their waists, their ankles in fetters.

They look weary and morose. They have not had baths or showers after several days in the desert, and the funk from this forced lack of hygiene pervades the courtroom. Indeed, the wall nearest to where the remainder of the defendants are still seated is blackened with the dirt from countless bodies.

Beside each defendant in front of Velasco is a lawyer, often a private attorney hired by the court for $125 per hour under the provisions of the U.S. Criminal Justice Act, which guarantees counsel to the indigent. Some are represented by salaried federal public defenders. Each lawyer has four to six clients in a day's Streamline lineup.

Velasco runs through a series of questions relayed to each migrant with the rapidity of an auctioneer, mumbling as he goes, his head down.

Individually, he asks them compound questions, translated into Spanish by an interpreter and transmitted to them via headphones: Do you understand your rights and waive them to plead guilty? Are you a citizen of Mexico (or Guatemala or El Salvador), and on such-and-such a date near such-and such a town, did you enter the United States illegally?

The answers never vary: "."

Then he asks them, as a group, whether anyone has coerced them into a plea of guilty. "No," the chorus replies.

Again, they're asked, as a group, whether they are pleading guilty voluntarily because they are in fact guilty. The chorus cries, "."

First-timers receive time served for the petty offense of illegal entry.

Those charged with illegal reentry, a felony, plead guilty to the lesser offense of illegal entry.

In Yuma, Magistrate Judge Jay Irwin plays tortoise to Velasco's hare. By comparison, Irwin's courtroom pace is leisurely, almost plodding. On one summer Monday afternoon, the Streamline hearing involves 23 men and takes about an hour and 48 minutes to complete.

There is one lawyer for all 23 men. Federal public defender Matthew Johnson says he has handled up to 50 defendants by himself in one day.

Compare this with defenders in Tucson, where each lawyer may represent four to six clients at a time.

Defendants are not handcuffed while in the Yuma courtroom, though they do wear leg irons. They remain seated until they are sentenced and taken away by marshals. The court interpreter speaks to each man directly in Spanish. No headphones are required.

Unlike in Tucson, this pool of defendants is not a percentage of the whole, but rather everyone apprehended recently by the Border Patrol in the Yuma sector. Yuma's apprehensions are nowhere near the levels of the Tucson sector and never have been. In fiscal year 2009, there were 6,951 apprehensions in the Yuma sector, down about 95 percent from a 2005 high of 138,438.

Irwin advises the group of their rights, patiently details the charges against them, and individually asks each man whether he understands the charges and has any questions.

Irwin takes the guilty pleas, asking each whether he's pleading voluntarily and whether he is a citizen of the United States. He questions each man on where and how he entered the country—even getting into details of whether he crossed on foot—whether he was with others and where he intended to go.

Before each man is sentenced, Johnson reads biographical details concerning each defendant into the record. The details, along with Irwin's inquiries, have the combined effect of humanizing the defendants, making them individuals instead of part of a faceless herd.

One defendant is a bricklayer's assistant with a family in Mexico who was traveling to Salinas to look for work. Another, Flores, is a truck driver from Phoenix arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Johnson says Flores had been a resident of Phoenix for 10 years and, before that, a resident of Los Angeles for 10 years. He was supporting a wife and four American-citizen kids when collared.

Irwin sentences Flores to 20 days. Getting off with time served is a rarity in Irwin's court. Even first-timers with no criminal records get 10 days in jail before getting booted out of the country.

Later, in his chambers, Irwin says that "most of the time, not all of the time," he sends defendants to jail for at least a little while.

« Previous Page
Next Page »