A Day in Tucson’s ‘Assembly-Line’ Immigration Court

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Mother Jones visits the federal courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., to observe Operation Streamline, a fast-track prosecution program that charges and sentences as many as 70 border-crossers there in a single day. On a scorching June morning, nearly 50 shackled immigrants shuffle into a courtroom. Under Streamline, they have agreed to plead guilty to the crime of entering the United States illegally, knowing that it carries a predetermined prison sentence followed by mandatory deportation. Typically, the whole process is over within a couple of hours. Critics call it “assembly-line justice.”

First launched in southern Texas in 2005, Streamline began as a part of a zero-tolerance policy enacted by President George W. Bush that required illegal border-crossers in certain areas to be sent to federal criminal courts rather than civil immigration courts. Whether Streamline deters people from trying to cross the border again is debatable. “If you read criminological, clinical studies of how people think, deterrence comes much more from the certainty or the probability of getting caught, and much less the gravity of the sentence,” says Joel Parris, a defense attorney who regularly represents Streamline clients. “For the average guy coming from Mexico, fear of the Border Patrol is not near as much as fear of the cartels. I don’t think there’s a significant deterrent effect there, given the real pressures that these people face.”

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