By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Migrants—who once would have been removed from the country through a civil-administrative process and barred from legal reentry—now return home with a criminal record that could expose them to escalating punishment if they cross the border again to escape poverty, find work and/or reunite with loved ones.
Streamline began as a "zero tolerance" approach to border enforcement during President George W. Bush's administration. Before its advent in 2005, aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol generally were not prosecuted under existing criminal statutes.
Once migrants began receiving criminal penalties for illegal entry, the Border Patrol claimed dramatic reductions in apprehensions in the Del Rio sector, where the program began. In 2006, Streamline started in the Border Patrol's Yuma, Arizona, sector. Laredo got it in 2007. And in January 2008, Streamline was initiated in the Tucson sector, where it's estimated that nearly half of all illegal entries occur.
Now in eight courts along the U.S.-Mexico Border, Streamline operates a little differently in each one. In some jurisdictions—including Yuma and Del Rio—a magistrate may give a first-time offender 10 or 15 days in detention after pleading guilty. The number of defendants seen per day varies, from 20 to 40 a day in Yuma to 30 to 80 a day in Del Rio.
The Border Patrol claims that the total number of Streamline convictions has topped 133,000 since the program's 2005 launch, but analysts believe this number is low, and the Border Patrol acknowledges that certain sectors are not included.
Nearly 80 percent of the immigrants apprehended in Texas' three Streamline sectors—Del Rio, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley—are selected for prosecution. That's close to 14,000 cases per year.
In testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission in January, Tucson Magistrate Judge Jennifer Guerin reported that since its 2008 implementation in Tuscon, about 30,000 people had been prosecuted through Operation Streamline. Seventy percent of the 30,000 had no criminal record and were charged with first-time illegal entry and received time served, Guerin says. The other 30 percent were charged with both felony illegal reentry and misdemeanor illegal entry. These "flips," as lawyers refer to them, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge and received some jail time as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
Kenneth Quillin, a Border Patrol spokesman in Yuma, says his agency believes Streamline has helped it gain "operational control" over the Yuma sector, because migrants now know there are consequences for crossing illegally.
"I think word got down to would-be crossers," Quillin says, "that if you were to cross in this area, you're going to at least, one, get a charge, and two, spend a little time in jail."
Although all federal magistrates handle the Streamline proceedings differently, Judge Bernardo Velasco, one of the seven magistrates in Tucson hearing Streamline cases, may have the speediest judicial delivery among his colleagues. In the Special Proceedings Courtroom, where Tucson's daily Streamline hearings take place, the 61-year-old veteran magistrate burns through 70 defendants in a little 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, Latin America or a prison run by CCA.
"I wouldn't say it's pretty," says the blunt Velasco after one Streamline hearing. "But I don't know of anywhere where it says things should be pretty."
Some Tucson magistrates take 90 minutes or more to get through these en masse hearings. But when Velasco's running things, the defense lawyers joke they don't bother to sit down between clients.
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.
Beside each defendant is a lawyer, often a private attorney hired by the court at a rate of $125 an hour. 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, 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: "Sí."
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 plead guilty voluntarily because they are, in fact, guilty. The chorus cries, "Sí."
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 and get anywhere from 30 to 180 days.