Crossing the border was once a matter for civil immigration courts. Now, every day in federal criminal courts along the Southwest border, hundreds of mostly destitute Latino and indigenous Latin American migrants are shackled, charged, convicted and sentenced en masse under the policy called “Operation Streamline.” The program has proven to be a boon for private prisons by funneling tens of thousands of immigrants into federal prisons every year. Through research and advocacy, Grassroots Leadership is fighting for and end to this program.
DEL RIO - The shackled migrants in orange jumpsuits shuffled into this border town's small federal courtroom one recent morning, each facing a short prison sentence and swift deportation for the federal crime of entering the United States illegally.
In other areas along the border, they might have been simply detained before being quickly removed in an administrative process outside of any courtroom. Perhaps, some would have had a chance to make their case to an immigration judge.
But it was here, in 2005, that frustrated Border Patrol agents developed a program they named Operation Streamline to prosecute all migrants caught within a stretch of the border en masse and channel them into the federal justice system, where the Bureau of Prisons has more resources to hold them for longer before deportation.
So it took U.S. Magistrate Judge Collis White little more than an hour to read all of the 29 shackled defendants their rights, describe their crime of entering without inspection, and then go around the courtroom, inquiring whether they wanted to plead guilty.
Sharing a single defense lawyer, all said they did.
Now, President Donald Trump's administration is expanding this program of dizzyingly fast mass convictions to other federal courts along the border in Arizona, even California, and has, under a new directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ordered U.S. attorneys across America to prioritize such immigration prosecutions.
The expense to the federal courts and Bureau of Prisons of criminalizing what is usually a civil offense is staggering. Detaining migrants on such charges alone costs some $1 billion a year, according to estimates by Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group in Austin opposing incarceration. Read more about Streamlined: Trump pressing for mass criminalization of illegal border crossers
TUCSON, Ariz. ― Immigrants facing prosecution for crossing the border illegally appeared before a judge without shackles for the first time in years here Tuesday, after a landmark ruling ordered the federal courts in Arizona to stop routinely restraining people who don’t present a security threat.
The ruling applies to anyone facing federal criminal charges in Arizona. But it disproportionately affects Operation Streamline, an immigration-prosecution program that allows judges to group defendants to speed up hearings for those accused of crossing the border illegally.
Some public defenders and immigrant rights groups viewed the change as a positive, if limited, development. Bob Libal, director of the Texas-based group Grassroots Leadership, told HuffPost: “It makes the process seem less overtly dehumanizing. I think it’s a good thing that people aren’t in shackles, and it’s a terrible thing that we’re prosecuting dozens and dozens of people daily for the crime of coming to the country.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling May 31 that it is unconstitutional to indiscriminately force defendants to appear before a federal judge in shackles. Instead, judges have to decide if each individual defendant poses a security risk that would require restraints.
“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain,” the opinion reads.
It’s unclear how the ruling will affect immigrant prosecutions in the future, according to Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.
“We’re waiting for everything to clear,” Lopez told HuffPost. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”
The U.S. District Court for the state of Arizona has until Friday to respond to last week’s ruling ordering the state to stop routinely shackling defendants. The order may change after it does so. Read more about Immigrants Appear Unshackled Before Judge In Arizona After Federal Ruling
(AUSTIN, Texas) — Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will reverse course on an August announcement to phase out the use of private prisons in the federal prison system. The announcement directs the Bureau of Prisons to return to its previous policy and to continue using for-profit private prisons. Read more about BREAKING: Trump’s Department of Justice reverses order to phase out federal private prisons
This past week I had the privilege of traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a border delegation through the Young Adult Volunteer program of the Presbyterian Church USA. Though I had lived on the border for a year and know this particular area quite well, I did not know exactly how this trip would turn out. Read more about Learning from the Borderlands
Plans by the Department of Justice to begin phasing out contracts with private prisons is fueling calls from immigrant advocates to also end the use of private immigration detention centers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has in recent years increasingly contracted with private for-profit companies to run a vast network of detention centers to hold immigrants, including the 1,550-bed Eloy Detention Center in Pinal County about 60 miles south of Phoenix.
Critics contend the use of for-profit companies to run immigration detention centers has fueled a trend to hold more people rather than use less expensive alternatives to detention.
"These companies have financial interest in making sure that these detention facilities are full," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group based in Austin, Texas, that opposes private prisons. Read more about Could for-profit immigrant detention centers, including in Arizona, be next on feds' hit list?
News that the federal government is rolling back its dealings with private prisons was a big enough deal on Thursday that it sent Corrections Corp stock plummeting within 60 seconds.
It's no small thing: the government's decision to decline or let expire contracts with the 13 private prisons across the country will affect about 40,000 inmates held inside, according to a 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But this move only affects a fraction of inmates locked up by the private sector: the same report shows over 91,000 are housed in state prisons, which will be untouched by the DOJ's decision. The BJS report does not include private county prisons.
Nor will the decision touch the private detention operations of the Immigration and and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is housed under the Department of Homeland Security, a bigger client to the private prison industry than the DOJ. ICE is under a mandate to hold 34,000 detainees at a time, and corporations oversee 62 percent of ICE's detention beds.
A damning report by the Inspector General a week ago found private inmates get worse treatment, fewer resources, and shabbier conditions than their counterparts in publicly-run prisons.
"I would still say this is an historic day and may mark a turning point," said Bob Libal, executive director at Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights group that studies and organizes to end private prisons.
"I hope it's one of many big days to come," he added. Read more about The federal shutdown of private prisons only affects a fraction of inmates
Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership executive director, discusses the U.S. government halting a decade-long experiment to hire private companies to help manage the soaring prison population. He speaks with Bloomberg's Erik Schatzker and Joe Weisenthal on "Bloomberg Markets." Read more about Prison REITs Sink After U.S. Ends Privately-Run Jails
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Justice has released a report on privately operated prisons that concludes these facilities, some of them located in Texas, have more safety and security incidents than those operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The DOJ looked at incidents that occurred between Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2014 and OIG staff visited three private prisons that have contracts with the federal government.
Two of them are in Texas.
They are the Dalby Correctional Facility, which is in the northwest part of the state, and the Eden Detention Center, located about 50 miles east of San Angelo. Read more about DOJ Report: Privately Operated Prisons Less Safe For Inmates And Staff
The DOJ’s decision will impact 13 federal prisons run by private companies, or just over 22,000 incarcerated people. These people will be ostensibly shuffled to publicly-operated prisons, which is still a big problem for those who argue that mass incarceration itself is a profound injustice.
As the anti-prison-profiteering organization Grassroots Leadership explains, “Most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. CAR prisons hold noncitizens, many of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border.” Bethany Carson, researcher and organizer for the group, said in a press statement, “We hope that this decision will be a stepping stone for the DOJ to end the use of segregated prisons for non-citizens and de-prioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions.” Read more about There's a Monster Loophole in the Feds' Move to Stop Working With Private Prisons