In a few seconds, it was all over. On that brisk Oct. 2013 morning, a large group of us --ranging from students and young professionals to seasoned retirees and a mother ranging in age from 20 to 68 -- had scurried up to two halted prison buses filled with shackled migrants off the local I-10 Tucson, AZ freeway and locked our arms around the buses' front tires. After several hours of delay, the transport vehicles would not make their fateful destination that day, a few blocks away at the U.S. District Court of Arizona.
This morning the State of Arizona begins its criminal prosecution trial against us, providing another opportunity to impugn the ugly aspects of U.S. immigration and border enforcement policies.
For once, a small act of civil disobedience that October day had ensured that the Evo A. DeConcini courtroom of "special proceedings" was emptied of its usual dour scene. Exemplifying the inhumanity of U.S. immigration and border enforcement policies, the mass prosecution program called Operation Streamline, begun in Del Rio, TX in 2005 and brought to Tucson in Jan. 2008, daily takes a large sample of roughly 70 newly captured migrants and gives them criminal records and often lengthy jail sentences.
It is a petrifying experience to witness Operation Streamline in action in Tucson's downtown federal courthouse. Here is a typical illustration of what one can expect to observe in the courtroom every day: With chains wrapped trimly around the torsos of the segregated groups of men and women, their hands shackled together, a horrible soft clanking punctuates the constant rustle of the courtroom through the whole session. The men's feet are fettered, creating a slow, hobbling waddle in their walk as they are led in and out of the courtroom by stern-faced marshals. A monotonous call-and-response rolls off between the judge and each chained detainee while the private attorneys contracted by the government to "defend" the migrants are often busy reading dime novels or playing video games on their iPhones during the proceedings.
After Streamline was cancelled due to the Oct. 2013 action, nearly all the migrants on the buses were deported in record time (perhaps in attempts to prevent their stories from being told) and spared criminal humiliation and undeserved punishment. Their loved ones in the U.S. -- doubtless including citizen children, spouses, family, friends -- could at least take solace in the fact that reuniting with them one day may not be as difficult as Streamline would have guaranteed. Meanwhile, those of us who call for equal opportunity for immigrants can continue to demand that the systemic failure of U.S. immigration policies, epitomized by Streamline, remains front-and-center in the public eye.
Before Oct. 2013, Operation Streamline had been the "best kept secret" of the Obama administration, in the words of local Tucson attorney Isabel Garcia. But no longer. Now Streamline isn't as hush-hush as it once was. On the other side of the seven criminal charges the county attorney is leveling against us for stopping the buses are the lives and stories of the migrants who this time were spared undue criminal offenses. Today's trial against 13 of us arrested that day will, in turn, put Streamline on trial and highlight the stories of those who continue to face the program's brand of everyday violence.
In Postville, Iowa, in May, 2008, the Streamline model led the charge of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, in which the Bush administration rented cattle fairgrounds at the edge of town, bused in judges, lawyers and interpreters and created a makeshift courtroom and detention center to prosecute the mostly indigenous Maya (Guatemalan) migrants en masse. But it all came crashing down when one court translator's conscience moved him to publicize the grim episode, embarrassing and scandalizing the Bush administration and putting the spectacle front-and-center of national attention. But despite a media blitz that included two years of editorials in the New York Times, the Postville raid's Streamline character was portrayed as a brief aberration rather than the enforcement standard it had been -- long before Postville and now long since.
Operation Streamline is all about besmirching migrants as criminals instead of processing their cases through civil or administrative immigration courts, as in the past. Much thanks to Streamline, now Latinos represent more than half of all those sentenced to federal prisons. As of 2012, more than 200,000 people had been prosecuted through Streamline-related enforcement throughout the Southwest and U.S. interior since the program's onset in 2005 -- with 74,000 prosecutions in Tucson alone since Jan., 2008. The numbers are, today, much higher and a rising boon to private prison corporations like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America. If the "security" package of the Senate's immigration reform proposal passes the House -- a "common sense" bill, according to President Obama -- it will expand Streamline by 300 percent.
If I and my fellow defendants had done nothing that day, we'd have just continued to tolerate our unjust privilege of never having to be on those buses.
To our shame, all of us remain free while the daily busloads of migrants, in chains, are kept from their families and their dreams.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the number of people currently standing trial related to the Operation Streamline protest as 16. The correct number is 13.