Deportation Court: The Real Effects of Operation Streamline

Under Operation Streamline, harsher penalties for repeated attempts to cross the US-Mexico border yield little when it comes to actually deterring migrants, while ushering in troubling trends in the way such cases are adjudicated.


| April 2015



Border Fence

Arizona ranks first in both the deaths of migrants attempting to enter the country, and the number of migrants apprehended, with Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector making 4.6 million arrests from 2000-2013.

Photo by Fotolia/Hortigüela

Drawing on years of reporting in the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, journalist Margaret Regan explores the complex and politicized landscape of immigration enforcement in Detained and Deported (Beacon Press, 2015). Regan demonstrates how increasingly draconian detention and deportation policies have broadened police powers, while enriching a private prison industry whose profits are derived from human suffering. The following excerpt is from the introduction.

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Culpable

Nicknamed Deportation Court by a Tucson immigration attorney with a black sense of humor, Operation Streamline had started in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005. A component of the Bush administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy on unauthorized immigration, the program barreled into Tucson three years later. By the end of 2013, some 73,900 migrants had made the harrowing Streamline trudge through a DeConcini courtroom. Streamline was meant to counteract “catch and release” programs that allowed captured border crossers to be quickly recycled across the line. The idea was that charging and jailing even a small sampling of migrants, randomly selected from among those arrested each day, would deter more would-be crossers from coming. Now bearing criminal records, they’d face increasingly steeper punishments if they tried to come back. To its critics, it was the criminalization of migration.

I’d been to see the Streamline spectacle a number of times; I’d last visited in July 2013, a few months before the bus protest. That time, sixty-nine migrants had been hauled into the courtroom in the usual shackles and chains. Most of them were dark-skinned indígenas. They were chained hand and foot, their wrist and their hands attached to still another chain that encircled the waist. (A University of Arizona study found that Streamliners were chained up to six hours on average; the US marshals guarding the court insisted that the chains were the only possible way to manage seventy prisoners at a time.)

Just a few prisoners were women. They were seated on a bench in front of the judge, while the dozens of men sat in rows and rows along one wall.

All of the accused had been in the Border Patrol holding pen for a few days, where there were no showers to be had, and they were still dusty from the desert. The smell of their sweat permeated the courtroom. Because they were facing criminal charges, each of the migrant defendants was entitled to a free, court-appointed attorney. A small army of fifteen lawyers stood near the judge; each of them was representing four or five clients.