A man from Honduras and his 1-year old daughter rest in Tijuana on April 29, 2018, before a caravan of Central American migrants walked to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing to ask for asylum. / Photo by David Maung

The federal government’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally has flooded San Diego’s federal court system since April. In an attempt to manage the surge in criminal immigration cases, the Southern District of California launched a new program last Monday.

Operation Streamline, which has been used in other federal courts since 2005, effectively sets up a separate, expedited court system for defendants who have been charged with illegal entry misdemeanors. The Southern District of California had been the one holdout among the federal courts encompassing states that border Mexico.

The surge in prosecutions has wreaked havoc on the ground.

One of the biggest impacts was the separation of children from their parents — a practice the government said it would end a few weeks ago. But that’s not the only way the surge is causing chaos in the courts.

To the U.S. attorney’s office and the Southern District of California, Operation Streamline will speed up the misdemeanor cases to help manage the load. To defense attorneys, the program is designed to coerce defendants into pleading guilty and is unconstitutional.

Before April, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego rarely charged first-time offenders with misdemeanor crimes for crossing the border. If an individual was caught trying to enter the country illegally on multiple occasions or had a criminal history, he or she would be charged with an illegal re-entry felony. Many of the people being charged under the current policy would have simply been left to immigration officials.

The first day of the program had a relatively low number of defendants for a Monday, totaling 41 cases. Court on Mondays usually includes defendants who have been arrested on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which means the numbers are generally higher than other days of the week.

Court ended at 5:45 p.m. last Monday, later than normal, but a far cry from the worst days under the Department of Justice’s “zero-tolerance” approach. A few weeks ago, the court was in session until 10 p.m., with roughly 100 illegal entry misdemeanor cases on the docket.

At least 10 defense attorneys are assigned to these cases every day under the new program. They each have up to four clients.

The attorneys meet with their clients in the morning, in the underground parking garage of the courthouse. In the afternoon, the defendants come before the judge, where they have their initial hearing, plea and are sentenced or arraigned, have their bond set and schedule a future hearing if they plead not guilty and intend to fight their case.

Most defendants plead guilty and receive a time-served sentence, meaning they are released from criminal custody and deported soon after. If they have a criminal history or previous deportations, they’re typically sentenced to an additional 30 or 60 days.

Here are a couple of other things that stood out to me about the new process:

  • The defendants came out in the clothes they had been arrested in, rather than jumpsuits. On Monday, defendants were brought out in smaller groups without being bound by shackles at the ankles or wrists. On Thursday, Magistrate Judge Karen Crawford allowed 25 defendants who were going to plead guilty to be brought out at once, in leg shackles. Crawford said she had been there Wednesday until 6:45 p.m. and brought the larger group out to speed up the process.
  • It appears that the defendants who plead guilty and are sentenced to time served — most of the defendants — no longer spend nights in custody of the U.S. Marshals. Rather, they stay in a Border Patrol station for the night or weekend they are arrested and after court, return to immigration officials for deportation. One of the problems with the zero tolerance policy before Operation Streamline was implemented was of detention space for the Marshals, resulting in defendants being held up to four hours away in Arizona.
  • The three attorneys for the prosecution were all special assistant U.S. attorneys from Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. attorney’s office only had two paralegals present.
  • Translation services for non-Spanish and non-English speakers is still an issue. On Thursday, seven cases were dismissed immediately because of a lack of interpreters, while all the Spanish- and Mixteco-speakers had their cases heard because interpretation was available.
  • Defense attorneys are encouraging asylum-seekers not to plead guilty. Those who do plead guilty are referred to as “economic migrants” in court and are often from Mexico.

The Daily Beast wrote a play-by-play of the very first day of Operation Streamline, describing tearful migrants who barely understand what is happening to them and how local defense attorneys have dubbed the program “Operation Steamroller.”

Slow Progress on Family Reunification

In the building next door to where Operation Streamline hearings began last week, District Judge Dana Sabraw has been hearing regular updates on his court order that the government must promptly reunify separated children and parents. On Monday, Sabraw ordered a weeklong stop to deportations of families who have been recently reunited after they were separated by the Trump administration.

The American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns of “mass deportations” following the reunification of children ages 5 to 17 with their parents and asked that deportations be stalled at least a week after the families were reunified to ensure they weren’t being improperly deported. Sabraw order the temporary halt until the government responded.

Last Tuesday was the deadline for the government to reunite all children under the age of 5 with parents. It missed that deadline.

By Thursday, the government had reunited 57 of the 103 youngest children with their parents. The remainder, the government said, couldn’t be reunited because the parent had been deported, had a criminal history or the adult from who the child was separated from wasn’t actually the parent (though in some of those cases, the adult was a grandparent or uncle).

Sabraw chastised the government Friday after it said complying with the reunification order’s timelines could put children in harm’s way.

There are roughly 2,550 older children between the ages of 5 and 17 who the government needs to reunite with parents before July 26.

New Changes to Asylum

The Trump administration issued new guidelines to asylum officers at the border in attempt to stem the tide of asylum-seekers, particularly from Central America, arriving at the border. The new guidelines make it more difficult for those fleeing domestic or gang violence and for those who crossed the border between ports of entry, to obtain asylum.

  • The Los Angeles Times wrote about a notebook that asylum-seekers waiting in Tijuana use to maintain their place in line as they wait days and even weeks to turn themselves in at the port of entry to ask for asylum.

Problems in Detention

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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