On the left side of the courtroom, 60 to 70 short, dark-brown men and a few women are seated, handcuffed and shackled from the wrists, waist and ankles. All are silent. They take up about 20 rows, including the two corresponding to the jury box. The scene is surreal. Their chains, their color and height are very pronounced – yet in this courtroom, are hardly noticed by the lawyers and other court officials, including the judge.
This kangaroo court called Operation Streamline is America’s modern version of Expedited Indian Removal; chase, capture, pseudo-judicial proceeding, incarceration and deport. It convenes daily at 1:30 PM in Tucson, Arizona.
Apparently, the prisoners in this second-floor federal courtroom have been instructed not to converse with each other. But the periodic clanking of their chains betrays the silence. The chains eerily communicate that something is not right here.
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In contrast, in the middle of this courtroom are primarily well-dressed and well-heeled lawyers. Some attorneys sit; some stand. Many fiddle with their smartphones. Some of the attorneys are Mexican-American or Hispanic. Others are Anglos or white. All are supposed to be bilingual. And of course, their skin color, regardless of their ethnic origin, is noticeably lighter than that of their “clients.” On the right is the smallest section, reserved for 12 to 15 visitors.
None of the prisoners here is being tried for a violent felony or violent misdemeanor. They are being charged with illegal entry or illegal re-entry. Yet the shackles send a chilling message – that these brown men and women are highly dangerous and need to be kept under close watch and tight control at all times.
The courtroom is spectacle. It resembles theater more than trial. Not even Aurora theater massacre suspect James Holmes was shackled and herded into the courtroom in this manner. But the charade continues here because the public must be led to believe that this operation is keeping America safe from the brown hordes.
In this theater of the absurd, five questions are asked of each prisoner (here they are prisoners, not defendants). One of the judge’s questions, as the prisoners appear in groups of eight to nine, is whether they are uncoerced and making their decisions of their own free will. Handcuffed and shackled, they reply: Si.
While the chains are the ultimate symbol of dehumanization, there is something beyond them that is even more disturbing. What unfolds before the judge is not supposed to be taking place in an American courtroom, just as torture is not supposed to be part of “the American way.” What unfolds in these 90-minute show trials is that the anonymous prisoners are identified, charged, convicted, sentenced and shipped to a private prison.
A recent court decision requires judges to address each defendant personally. That may add 30 minutes to this procedure. This is justice American-style. It is lots of things. But the one thing it is not is a deliberative process.
For the prisoners, there is no true consultation and no deliberation. The court grants a three-hour block each morning between 9 AM and noon for attorneys to consult with their clients in the open courtroom. Each attorney is assigned eight to nine clients per day (and is compensated fairly well). What serious legal scholar will contend that one attorney can do an adequate job, much less a competent job, under such conditions and time constraints?
With such an assembly-line approach to this procedure, it is not a stretch to view this as America’s modern version of Expedited Indian Removal.
Since early 2008, I have witnessed this sham of a judicial procedure approximately a dozen times, and every time, my students are literally sickened by it. I too get internally ill from the exasperation produced by what passes for a judicial procedure. Each time, the students have wanted to ask the judge why the men and women are in chains. Each time, they also have had the impulse to ask the lawyers why they participate in this farce. And each time, they want to ask the judge why the prisoners get sent off to a private prison? Who benefits?
Is that what this comes down to? Profiting from the misery of human beings – human beings who brave deserts, mountains and rivers for a chance at a better life?
Each time I visit, I have had students run out crying and some vomiting at the obscenity, the inhumanity of seeing human beings shackled, treated like animals. And they always ask: Why is it a crime to attempt to feed your family?
The color of the prisoners never escapes them. Many of them look like them. In many cases, they are them. Every semester, especially this one, I always have students dealing with family separations and deportations.
I remember the first time I went to this operation, President George W. Bush was in office. When Sen. Barack Obama ran for and won the presidency, we all thought that this kangaroo court procedure finally would be shut down, something akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead, as written into the current comprehensive immigration reform proposal, this Expedited Indian Removal program will become three times bigger than its current form.
It is incomprehensible that Operation Streamline hasn’t been shut down and instead Congress may be expanding it.
There was a time when being apprehended on the border simply meant returning the migrants across the border … until someone decided that criminalization and incarceration could be profitable – literally, a big business. The more bodies, the more beds, the more money for the private prison industry.
Tucson human rights legend Isabel Garcia visited my classroom last month. In presenting this topic, she noted that one time, an African-American delegation witnessed the operation and left early in disgust. Afterward, she asked them why they did not wait until it was over. She said they left because the brown men in shackles, all lined up on one side of the courtroom, created the imagery of Africans in slave ships.
Yes. They could see it. Not the judge, not the lawyers. Chances are good that all visitors who witness this daily dehumanization can see something similar – something onerous that often cannot be described. This is compounded by the fact that we live with death all around us on the militarized border – more than 6,000 since NAFTA.
When my students leave the courtroom, they say they feel defiled, dirty … as if they have just witnessed something abominable, something that should not be taking place, something contrary to the US Constitution, something amoral. And all of it takes place compliments of our tax dollars.
Perhaps one day, this debased procedure will be shut down permanently.
The uglier reality is that such an operation might actually give prosecutors the opposite idea of using a similar procedure for other kinds of crimes … such as for traffic violations, theft, etc.
Really, it is sicker, more obscene and more offensive than anything that can be described here. Truly, it is Expedited Indian Removal.