A delegate from Montview Presbyterian Church wrote this reflection during a BorderLinks trip in 2014.
On Monday, we had the opportunity to go and be witnesses to Operation Streamline at the courthouse building here in Tucson. None of us really knew what to expect walking into this courthouse building on our second day in a brand new city. The only information we had was the short description of the process that our group leader, Kathryn, had told us while we were waiting to be invited in. Everyone was excited and anxious as we silently walked into the courtroom and had a seat. As the doors opened and we walked in, we could hear the sound of the 70 migrants’ shackles clanging as they all turned around to look at us. The judge began the trial and called 8 people to be sentenced at once. He read the questions in run on sentences that had to be translated by a women into a microphone that played her translation into the headphones the migrants were wearing. Prior to the beginning of the trial, these people caught by border control had no more than 30 minutes to speak with their lawyer and had to sign documents in English that they couldn’t fully understand. The judge asked them if they understood what they had done and what the consequences would be and after answering yes to these questions, the judge would give them a sentence of anywhere from 30-180 days. The sentence depended on the previous criminal record these people had. After the 8 people before the judge got their sentence, they would walk, shackles and all, out of the courtroom and would be transported to a private prison. Private prisons are very expensive and because, obviously, these migrants aren’t paying for their time in prison, millions of taxpayer dollars every year are spent on these private prisons. If you’re as confused as I am, you are probably wondering why we are spending so much of our money on private prisons for people who we are just going to deport again after they serve their sentence. I understand that these people have broken the law and that many have previous criminal records from anywhere from 1-20 years ago, but spending money to keep the people we want to keep out of our country in our country for up to 6 months is a little bit of a confusing concept.
After the trial, we had the opportunity to speak with a public defender. It also happened to be his last day as a public defender, so we may have heard many things the public wasn’t supposed to hear, but some of the stories he told us were absolutely appalling. He spoke of one day when he was running late for the trial and he had run into the judge in the elevator. He apologized to the judge for running late and said he was on his way up. The judge’s response was that that was fine because the trial was already over. This particular judge had asked the migrants if they wanted to talk to their lawyers of if they just simply wanted to get the trial over with. They didn’t speak much English and ended up doing the trial before they even had a chance to speak to a lawyer. The judge simply asked them if they had crossed the border illegally and when they answered yes, the judge gave them their sentence and dismissed the court, all within approximately 5 minutes. Another story the public defender told was of a young man living in L.A. who had migrated as a child with his parents. He was caught by border patrol and deported. However, he spoke little Spanish and had no idea how to adjust to life in Mexico. This man also had a previous criminal record from 20 years ago that caused him to have to serve jail time for simply living in the U.S. since he was a child.
All of these stories got me to thinking about what it means to be an American. Legally, it means you were born in the United States or waited 25 years to get a visa. For most of us, it means having an American flag shirt from Old Navy and eating hamburgers and hotdogs with your family and friends on the 4th of July. However, for many people who have migrated to the United States, it means working as a garbage man or working in a slaughter house because even these “dirty jobs” pay better than the factory job they could have in Mexico. It means living in fear every single time you see a white truck that might possibly be border patrol, just seconds away from pulling you over and deporting you. Being an American to them means doing all these things, all because they want a better life for them and their family. After seeing all of these things, I have come to understand that the way we classify people as citizens and criminals is just plain wrong. The people who want to be in our country so badly that they are willing to risk their lives walking through the desert for days on end are the ones who deserve to be Americans.