“Operation Streamline is not justice. To me justice is what love looks like in public and those defendants had love in their hearts when they chained themselves to the buses and prevented those buses from taking undocumented migrants to get criminalized.” Cornell West in a letter to judge before sentencing of 12 activists who blocked G4S prison buses carrying undocumented migrants.
TUCSON-On October 11, 2013 about a dozen activists chained themselves to buses carrying migrants to Operation Streamline. The court procedure named Operation Streamline by Border Patrol and the US Department of Justice processes 70 migrants a day as a group and leaves little opportunity for the hearing of individual cases including potential asylum-eligible cases.
With hands shackled to the waist and ankles shackled to each other, migrants are led into a courtroom and charged and convicted often in a matter of minutes. Their pleas may be pre-arranged and the sentences consistent across individuals that amount to serving time in a federal facility before an imminent deportation.
Critics of the procedure decry the dehumanization of the process and denounce the automatic group sentencing. As many of these migrants would be eligible for asylum under the current political crises in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, and others are longtime residents of the US with immediate family members who are citizens, activists work to ascertain legal, civil, constitutional, and human rights. Others simply want to keep families together.
The US Ninth Circuit Court has scrutinized the process as well. The court determined the unconstitutionality of Operation Streamline, but advocacy groups saw little change towards the treatment of migrants after the court’s determination. Current advocacy efforts seek to reform or eliminate the program due to its lack of contributing to public safety. Advocates further assert the strength of family ties as overruling any potential policy attempt to deter border crossings. According to human rights organizations, the bigger picture reveals the creation of an underclass of immigrant labor that is constantly susceptible to criminal charges where relief from prosecution through the lack of full civil rights becomes greater as time goes on.
For some, humanitarian reasons move critics; the costs move others into action. In Tucson alone, Operation Streamline costs a minimum of $96 million per year. The process is also used to mass-prosecute migrants in seven other border cities in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, with a total cost of over half a billion dollars a year.
In public statements the twelve expressed their intention to expose that Operation Streamline commits human rights abuses, ignores constitutional Due Process, and breaks international laws on the treatment of migrants. On the day of the bus blockade a support team attended to the activists who were chained by providing physical support, water, and food. Another group held signs and chanted on the side of the road and another blocked the entrance into the courthouse.
Most activists were from human rights groups and have supported migrants through their work. The Alliance for Global Justice, No More Deaths, UNIDOS, and Students for Justice in Palestine all were represented in the action.
After their lock tubes were broken and cut by law enforcement, and after arrest, activists were first charged with felony interference with a federal prosecution but those charges were later reduced to seven misdemeanors. In a subsequent court appearance, only 2 charges remained: blocking a highway and creating a public nuisance.
The courtroom atmosphere was transparent and amicable. Pictures and recording were allowed and even encouraged when Judge Susan Bacall directed defendants to speak at the podium where KGNU’s microphone was recording.
Pre-sentencing excerpt from statement given by Chuck Kaufman Co-coordinator with the Alliance for Global Justice follows:
Before sentencing I would like to explain why I considered Operation Streamline to be such a shock to the conscience that I purposely took an action to shine the light of world attention on the human rights violations that occur in that federal courtroom every day of the work week. But first, I want to make clear that I took the action for which I am convicted with the clear knowledge that I would be breaking laws in order to promote the higher purpose of justice. I understood that my act, like the acts of conscience of many people whose sacrifices far outweigh my own, could have serious consequences including physical injury and loss of liberty. I accepted at the time that there could be consequences and I accept that now.
My ancestors migrated to the US fleeing violence and persecution in Germany, just as many Central Americans and Mexicans do today. I was taught to obey the laws of civil authority except when those laws conflict with my conscience.
Operation Streamline commits violations of Due Process every day it is in session. Others will speak of the trauma of families split apart, of the desperation that causes people to take the dangerous trek across the desert, of our neighbors ripped out of our community, sent to private, for profit prisons, and deported to places where some will be killed. The crimes they are punished for weren’t even crimes fifteen years ago; they were civil infractions. I too am offended and was motivated to action by the recent criminalization of migration.
Candidates for Operation Streamline are charged with a felony and a misdemeanor, and offered a plea bargain of up to several months in private, for-profit prison if they plead guilty to the misdemeanor. At most they meet with a defense attorney for 10 minutes. They probably haven’t slept. They are dehydrated. They are still dressed in the clothes in which they were apprehended. Many don’t even speak Spanish, much less English.
As some of my colleagues who collected testimony from people who had been Streamlined will attest, many of them had no idea what was happening to them. They often weren’t asked if they had any grounds for asylum. They didn’t understand that with a criminal conviction they would never qualify to return under any likely Comprehensive Immigration Reform that Congress might pass. Their treatment is an abomination and a shock to the conscience. It is also a violation of the best thing this country ever produced, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – the Bill of Rights. They set out the Rights that each human being has within the borders of the United States. If we allow those precious rights to be infringed for some, they soon will be infringed for all of us. Before I became a full-time organizer, I held one job in the 1980 census in which I had to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. That is exactly what I did on the day we shut down Operation Streamline for one glorious day.
Gabriel Schivone an educator at the University of Arizona talked to KGNU before sentencing:
KGNU: Could you talk about the action that you took two years ago?
Gabriel Schivone: I think of my mom. I think of my cousins. My mom was born in Mexico and she came here as a child, and fortunately came across and got citizenship as an adult. I and my other siblings were born here. She raised a family. But under different circumstances I know it could have been her on that bus. So with that in mind I locked down to that bus and did not let go even when ordered to do so and threatened with arrest. I think of my cousin Carla who was living with us when I was a child. And she was then just gone one day. She was there one day and then gone the next. She had been deported. Back then I didn’t know what deported really meant as a word or concept and I wouldn’t until many years later really when I started working with No Mas Muertes. And then it connected very deeply. All she wanted to do was come here and work and build a family, and she did that until our enforcement system took it all away. And now the father of her children and one of her children are here, while she and another one of her children are separated in Mexico. And she’s been gone from my life since that day. In my innocent consciousness as a child, she disappeared. But this is what our government does. In fact, a quote always haunts me. It’s from Amnesty International, the largest human rights organization on earth. They did a 2009 report called Jailed Without Justice, and in it they quote former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Executive Director James Pendergraph when he was unabashedly telling a convention of police and sheriffs in 2008 and I’m quoting him, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear,” word for word as quoted in the report.
And I think of Carla. I know what disappearance feels like. It’s an empty cold feeling. And as I said, Carla’s gone from my life since that day. And that’s what disappearance means for me. And deportation.
So that day I saw my mom on that bus. I saw my cousin on that bus. I saw other people’s moms, other people’s cousins. I did what I did to keep the families, my family, their families, our families together.
KGNU: How do people end up in Operation Streamline?
Gabriel Schivone: Operation Streamline is an executive action and it was started in 2005 under the Bush administration. And so what happened to Carla as I mentioned, my cousin, this was before Operation Streamline started. So now these consequences are unimaginably worse. What happens is in this Border Patrol sector and Operation Streamline goes on in courts all along the border lands and almost all Border Patrol sectors, they make examples of people essentially and turn them into criminals. They sort of cook the books, cook numbers. You know that line that Bush gave, that Obama gives, “We only go after criminals?” Well if you’re undocumented in this country, you’re going to go out of your way to not break the law. So there are no criminals really. And this program turns them into criminals so it makes it look like ICE justifying its existence when it goes up for funding every year, “This is how many criminals.” But they’re cooking the books as I said. They’re manufacturing criminals and ruining people’s lives this way. Operation Streamline in this sector takes a sample of those who are captured in the deserts or in the streets and then puts them. So it’s about 70. But it’s a small percentage of those who are actually apprehended because this is like a really busy sector so they can’t put everyone through Streamline, but they put around 70 (a day).
But other places along the border it’s 100%. Everybody they catch, they Streamline. And so it varies from sector to sector but the point is now, thanks to every single day since 2005, and it went from Texas all the way to the Arizona/California border. Nearly 60% of all federal convictions now thanks to Streamline are of Latinos. And as Angela Davis said in her letter that she sent to the judge on our behalf, prisons in the United States are filled. Operation Streamline guarantees that prisons now are being filled with black and brown bodies.
KGNU: You mentioned that you got a letter from Angela Davis on your behalf. Who else did you get letters from and what did they write about?
Gabriel Schivone: Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, Aviva Chomsky, Joseph Nevins, experts in criminal justice and geography professors, community members, my mom, family members. Ordinary people sent in letters. Cornell West in his colorful language said things like, “Operation Streamline is not justice. To me justice is what love looks like in public and those defendants had love in their hearts when they chained themselves to the buses and prevented those buses from taking undocumented migrants to get criminalized.”
They all were urging the judge to, after railing Operation Streamline, they urged the judge to give us no more than time served.
KGNU: And your final statement as you’re about to go into your sentencing hearing.
Gabriel Schivone: Around the same time that people’s lives are being legally disabled as my lawyer said earlier, something about them, and I do everything I do to draw attention to that to end it one day.
After hearing testimony, Judge Susan Bacall sentenced the group to time served, in contradiction to prosecution request for a community service sentence of 150 hours. For most, time served comprised 14 hours.
Operation Blockade Action October 11, 2013 (courtesy of No More Deaths):
(photo bottom right) One person in shackles aboard a blockaded bus gestures to activists in appreciation.
Sentencing of activists July 20, 2015 (photos: KGNU News):