We went to observe the proceedings of Operation Streamline, a taxpayer-funded Department of Homeland Security brainchild that makes sure immigrants are prosecuted for illegal entry before deportation. If they try to enter again, as most do, they can be thrown in jail for up to six months because of the previous criminal record. Six months where they can't send home any money to their families or return to see them.
We entered the enormous, brightly lit courtroom and were ushered into a tiny section on the side behind the prosecution, as far from the migrants on trial as possible. My professor explained that this was to prevent activists from offering any comfort or solidarity to the migrants, and to create the illusion that we were for the proceedings. There were more observers than bench space, and though there were many empty rows in the middle section, we were forbidden from sitting there. When one man protested that this was unfair, he was escorted bodily from the courtroom. Several people who had wanted to watch the trial had to wait outside.
There were 76 migrants, shackled in metal chains on their ankles and wrists. Their belts and shoelaces had all been removed (standard prison procedure to prevent people from hanging themselves), so many had to hold up their pants as they shuffled awkwardly to the microphone. One had a severe limp. A few peeked over at us, but most stared straight ahead. The 7 females were separated from the males.
The public defenders represented about 8 migrants each, and most could barely pronounce their clients' names. One lawyer hadn't shown up that day, and his clients were assigned a new lawyer on the spot that they had never spoken to. The judge (a young, blonde woman) assured them that he was very experienced. Whenever the judge addressed the migrants, she spoke quickly and used a lot of legal jargon, and many migrants frowned and looked at each other for clarification. When she asked all who wanted to waive their right to an appeal to stand, many stood halfway, then sat down, or stood if their neighbor stood. All but a few had headsets plugged into their ears for translation. Those that didn't must have been living in the U.S. for many years before being rounded up. Not all of the judge's words were confusing, however. "You are an alien to this country" is pretty straightforward.
They were called forward in small groups for sentencing. Each stepped up and said "culpable" (Spanish for "guilty") into the microphone, then were either sentenced to "time served" (they can go back, and just have a record) or 45, 90 or 180 days in prison. The sentencing seemed arbitrary but my professor explained that it has to do with previous offenses and the leniency of the judge. Apparently a new judge will start out giving the maximum sentence to everyone, but will get worn down processing migrants day after day and give shorter sentences or "time served."
Most migrants shook their head when asked if they had anything to say, but a few said, "I'm sorry for coming into your country." One young woman, crying, said she just wanted to go home to her children. She was given 30 days in prison. One lawyer said his client had walked three days through the desert and needed medical care. "Duly noted," said the judge. One migrant said his 3-month-old daughter was dying. One said he couldn't read or write and didn't understand the plea he had signed.
Two hours later, all 76 had been sentenced and herded out of the room. Your tax dollars at work. The six of us left and silently piled into our van.