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Operation Streamline: injustice in our justice system

| Thursday, February 18, 2016

The sound of chains rang in our ears. More than 50 migrants stood together in shackles, awaiting their mere 25 seconds in front of a judge who would sentence them to up to 180 days in prison followed by deportation through a process known as Operation Streamline.

Our class witnessed these court proceedings during which groups of five were called up to the podium. During that time they answered three “yes” or “no” questions asking if they knew what they were guilty of and then a final question asking how they plead. It was a factory line with the judge asking the questions and the answers coming in one after the next; “sí, sí, no, culpable.” The same thing over and over again. It was all the men and women in the courtroom said to the judge before their sentencing.

These rapid, mass trials make it impossible for migrants to receive appropriate legal treatment. A mere two percent of Operation Streamline defendants report being informed they could denounce abuses they had been subject to, and only one percent stated the lawyer checked for legal migration options due to family connections. While Streamline certainly doesn’t violate the right to a “speedy” trial, most would argue that these rapid, mass trials do not fulfill the due process guaranteed to all people (not just citizens) by our Constitution.

Beyond asking whether or not Streamline trials are fair, we should ask if they are working. The primary goals of Operation Streamline are to deter unauthorized migration through criminalization and to keep the country safer by locking up potentially dangerous criminals. It has failed in both of these regards. Court records show Streamline has not led to more prosecution of drug traffickers or violent criminals, and most immigrants deported through Streamline will attempt to cross again. Rather than allowing migrants to provide needed labor, taxpayers were charged $1.96 billion to detain them in 2013, an exorbitant price tag to fund an ineffective, immoral and unconstitutional program.

The injustices do not stop with this process itself. After being prosecuted, the migrants need to go somewhere. Because the state prisons have not been able to hold the newly created influx of criminalized migrants, private prisons can feast on these vulnerable people as well as taxpayers, lobbying for and receiving publicly funded contracts worth millions of dollars.

These prisons then proceed to take any money migrants have on their person and act as their banker, keeping this money and wages they earn working prison jobs for less than a dollar per hour. At the end of their stay at the prisons, migrants are given their money back in checks only cashable in the U.S., making it impossible for them to access. This process serves as a legal veil for prisons to essentially steal people’s money. Though $100 may seem trivial, to someone who can barely survive, it’s everything. This might seem like a small detail, but one person who is working to return money by cashing checks has returned $100,000 over one year in one town. Imagine all those who have slipped through the cracks.

Pope Frances said in 2014, “Migrants and refugees should not be pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” At the very least, migrants deserve to be treated humanely. Regardless of your political views on immigration, Streamline and related migrant detention policies are not only ineffective but clearly violate basic rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Many people who defend U.S. border policy rely on the “illegality” of migrants’ actions for justification. But are these policies actually unjust? Like Martin Luther King Jr. said, don’t we have a moral obligation to challenge unjust laws to make our world a better place?

Matt Alexander

sophomore, Alumni Hall


Steven Jessen-Howard

sophomore, Alumni Hall


Drew Martin

junior, Knott Hall

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • MC

    I wish the authors had included ideas for a better way for prosecuting huge amounts of people all committing the same crime. The idea that just letting everyone stay and work would be better is dubious and ignores the fact that we would be leaving important and democratically passed laws unenforced.

    • Johnny Whichard

      How to write a Notre Dame Viewpoint:

      Pick a specific demographic.
      Complain about how that demographic is being treated.
      End article.

      That’s “Doing Something”.

      • Andrew Martin

        If we believe in democracy and that these laws have been passed by the people, then it’s up to us to begin public discourse and educate more people on the issues they might not know about. Then the people themselves can change the laws. In reality, this is actually “doing something.” Believe me, there are things that many of would like to do, but probably wouldn’t be prudent. Yes, this article itself won’t change the world, but we hope at the very least, people will begin to think about immigration. We coordinated an entire week of these articles because we are passionate about what we saw in Arizona, not because we want to complain about bad things in order to make ourselves feel better.

    • Elaine Schmidt

      This article doesn’t offer a “better way for prosecuting huge amounts of people all committing the same crime” because it is trying to highlight the absurdity of prosecuting and deporting thousands of people when the process only costs us money and does not deter people from entering. Your argument is utilizing the logic of those who, “defend U.S. border policy [by] rely[ing] on the ‘illegality’ of migrants’ actions for justification,” but the fact is that these policies need to change because they are unjust. The viewpoints this week call into question whether those “democratically passed laws” should be in effect and whether we should criminalize crossing undocumented into the US. Regardless of whether or not we dramatically alter our immigration policy, though, we cannot allow this system to continue operating in its currently capacity. As the article states, “’Migrants and refugees should not be pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.’ At the very least, migrants deserve to be treated humanely.” All in all, this viewpoint aims primarily to educate.

    • Steven Jessen-Howard

      Yeah, Elaine pretty much summed it up. We did not mean to argue that we should allow everyone into the country, but rather that those who are apprehended while crossing should be treated fairly, and that current policies of immigrant detention are failing. The designation of unauthorized migration as a criminal offense rather than a civil one (i.e. jaywalking) is relatively new, and only exists in a few states. So I think short-term, we could just deport migrants humanely rather than locking them up first, but only if we ensure we are not deporting anyone who has a claim to be in the country legally, or who would face dangerous conditions in their home country. In the long term, among other reforms, I think it’s important to make it easier for people to come to the country legally through work visas and reevaluating migration quotas and asylum criteria, especially for Latin Americans. And regardless of the above, any trial conducted in the U.S. should follow the guidelines of our constitution.

      • MC

        Just out of curiosity, do you think making it easier to come would lessen the number of people coming illegally? We can streamline the process and maybe change quotas, but the demand to come here will likely always be higher than what the American Congress is willing to allow. Furthermore, most believe it would be better for the country to take more high skilled immigrants and extend temporary visas, not take more permanent low skilled workers.
        Coming into a country illegally violates the right of sovereign nations to secure their borders; it is clearly not of the same caliber as jaywalking. I sympathize with people who want to come to this country, but I fail to see why people have a right to come here that takes precedent over the right of the US citizens to make their own policy and regulate their borders.
        Also, why especially Latin Americans? Millions of people worldwide want to come here from extremely dangerous and depressed parts of the world. We have already allowed millions from Latin America to stay here even though they came here illegally. I would say would be more valuable to extend offers to other countries equally.
        I agree that we should always uphold the Constitution, and the Supreme Court should pick up this case if they feel that it is pertinent and someone is willing to submit it for review. I just don’t see why it is so wrong for this country to work to enforce the laws that most of its people want enforced.

        • Steven Jessen-Howard

          Yes, I think making it easier to come legally would reduce the number of people coming without documents. Right now, someone wanting to come here legally without having U.S. citizen immediate family, a lot of money, or “superstar” skills would probably have to wait over 20 years – a long time to wait if you can’t feed your family at the moment. Of course letting more people in legally isn’t going to completely eliminate people coming in without authorization, but it would allow Border Patrol to focus on the cartels and other real threats. And again, I’m not saying the U.S. should not regulate its borders, but that we should do so without violating human rights, and in ways that make sense. On the federal level, undocumented immigration is a civil offense rather than a criminal offense.

  • Jenna Knapp

    In response to the question as to why the Latin America (specifically Mexico and Central America) should be given precedence, we have spent the better part of the past 100 years destroying the social fabric of these countries and their local economies. We (the US government with the help of our tax dollars) have supported military dictatorships to protect our economic interests, we’ve trained death squads at Fort Benning Georgia in torture and counterinsurgency warfare to squash peaceful resistance and revolutions alike, and we have destroyed local economies and natural resources through NAFTA and CAFTA. We’ve exported gangs to the region from our very own Los Angeles, thanks to the fact that wartime refugees (trying to protect themselves as they fled the wars we funded) were labeled terrorists and were deported in droves with new gang identities and a constant flow of arms from the US that never ceases to fight the “war on drugs” with continued repression that has never, and will never work. Allowing immigrants to come to the US is not a favor from a benevolent nation to the “less fortunate.” It is the very least we can do for human beings whose lives have been ravaged by the proxy wars we fight for economic gain. They don’t come here because they want to leave behind their lives and their homes and risk horrendous abuse and death on the journey. They come because we have spent well over a century working tirelessly to create the very chaos from which they flee.