WHAT WE HEARD:
Today we had the opportunity to examine the legal component of immigration from several different perspectives. In the morning, we listened to a talk by Matthew, a member of the “End Streamline Coalition.” He told us about Operation Streamline, a policy enacted to expedite the legal process for people apprehended attempting to cross the Mexican-American border. His talk was important preparation for our visit to the Federal Courthouse that afternoon, as we learned about the technicalities of the process. Through Operation Streamline migrants are strong-armed into plea deals by being threatened with long prison times. First time offenders could receive up to a six-month sentence and a second offense could mean up to a twenty-year sentence. He also explained that the process is disorganized and constantly changing between different districts and over time, adding to the already arbitrary and confusing nature of the policy. Even as native English speaker who had been studying the issue for several years he said the technicalities of the policy would often confuse him.
Many of the problems discussed in the talk were clearly illustrated by what we saw when we got to the courtroom. The judge began the proceedings by telling the detained migrants that they did not have to plead guilty to the charges, however, considering the long sentences they could face, they really didn’t have choice. The proceedings themselves were extremely formulaic. A group of around ten migrants would line up in front of the judge with their lawyers standing behind them. The judge then asked each migrant whether they wanted to waive their rights and take the deal by pleading guilty. None of the migrants appeared to speak English and everything was translated for them. It was easy to see how the process could be confusing and a few of the migrants didn’t understand what they were being asked. All of the around 50 migrants present answered “sí” (yes) and “culpable” (guilty) to the judge’s questions. Many of us noticed how oddly nonchalant the lawyers and judge were when talking to the detainees. Also, judge often messed up or mispronounced the names of the migrants and confused which person he was addressing, this added to the feeling that the migrants were not being respected and simply shuttled through the system.
After the trip to the courtroom we met and talked with Katie Ruhl, an immigration lawyer, who explained her work and offered more details about the immigration system outside of Operation Streamline. She talked about the difficult process to get asylum–only about 3-10% of request are granted by federal judges. Applicants for asylum must prove that they are being prosecuted for their political affiliation, social group, race, religion or nationality. Even if a person faces mortal danger upon return to their home country, their application will be refused if they do not meet this criteria. She also discussed her interesting work with claims for asylum based on gender and sexual orientation. A final and important point that she highlighted was how a specific prosecutor’s or judge’s personal beliefs on immigration will often cause them to be more or less sympathetic towards migrants, continuing the theme of the arbitrary and unjust nature of this country’s immigration system.
WHAT WE SAW:
When we walked into the courtroom, it was surprising how many people were present. Besides the obvious lawyers, court clerks, and staff, there were 56 migrants sitting in long rows of chairs before the judge’s bench. It was the first time that we saw the very people whose stories and experiences we are studying. The group was predominantly men of varying ages, though some women were sitting separately in the area normally reserved for a jury. We learned that 56 was a relatively low number, especially given that this was a group that would include apprehensions over a long weekend. The number of migrants in Operation Streamline Hearings has been going down in recent months—more likely a symptom of slightly reduced migration numbers than a reduction in the actual number of migrants being selected for Operation Streamline. On average, 13% of all detainees are sent through Operation Streamline, though why those 13% are selected is a mystery to the general public and a question we hope to pose to Border Patrol later in the week.
We were unable to interact with the migrants involved in the hearing, but we recognized looks of confusion on their faces as we filed in. Though we knew our purpose in the experience, it was clear that the presence of large groups of college students, us along with several others, made very little sense to them. We watched the migrant’s interactions with their attorneys—some friendly and engaging, others more short and distant. We also saw one of the attorneys interact with some of the few family members present, explaining that unfortunately they would not be able to interact with their loved one after the proceedings as it presented a “security risk.”
Finally, we observed some of processes that seemed unnecessarily criminalizing and dehumanizing. The Border Patrol officers responsible for leading the migrants out of the courtroom following the sentencing wore plastic gloves and interacted with the migrants in a distant manner. The migrants shuffled by in shoes without laces, another sight we associate more with prisons than with immigration. Most startling, though, were the chains. Each migrant was handcuffed and chained around the waist, the sounds of the chains rattling with every step they took. In case the emphasis on migrants as criminals hadn’t been emphasized enough, we certainly picked up on it then.
Most significantly, what we saw were not proceedings taking place in an immigration court. This was a criminal court and these were criminal proceedings.
WHAT WE FELT:
Today we felt intrusive. We felt uncomfortable and complicit. We felt out of place and out of sorts. It seemed as though the migrants should have a choice as to whether or not we were there in the courtroom. It felt as though we were witnessing something we weren’t supposed to. It was a personal experience and our presence, though silent and with the intention only to observe, did have an effect, whether it was intended or not.
We were shocked by what we saw and what we heard. Though we had been told, none of us had a full understanding of what the criminal proceedings would look like.
We felt powerless to express things. Powerless to make our discomfort known and raise issues with the problems we were seeing. This was certainly not something we supported, but due to our lack of action and inability to explain ourselves to the migrants whose personal challenges we were witnessing, we felt as though we were making ourselves complicit with the system.
Witnessing this injustice was important, but it was hard to find the line between showing solidarity and intruding on an experience we weren’t a part of.
We felt a lot of things today, and we’re still struggling with how to express them. More will certainly come in the following days, but for now we are left with two important questions:
Whose lives do we consider and recognize as valuable?
What does a humane border look like and can those two words even exist in the same sentence?