By Marielena Castellanos
Seven men and one woman pleaded guilty to crossing the U.S. Mexico border without permission during a criminal court hearing this week.
Their trial marked the beginning of Operation Streamline in California, a controversial program which fast tracks immigration prosecutions by putting multiple groups of people through a federal criminal court hearing simultaneously and in a short period of time. The group hearings are expected to be held each day in San Diego.
Norma Aguilar, a supervisory attorney with the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., called the program, “the inherently coercive system,” adding that some of the defendants’ attorneys didn’t agree with their clients’ decision to plead guilty.
Each person was charged with a misdemeanor, considered a minor wrongdoing, but their guilty plea leaves them with a criminal record which would affect their ability to come into the country legally in the future.
Early on, defense attorneys told the court they objected to the proceedings, making an equal protection argument that the defendants were not treated the same as others defendants that come into federal court. They also objected to what they described as coerciveness of the whole proceeding, adding that this separate immigration court is unequal.
Defense attorneys said hours earlier the defendants who were shackled cried as they met with them to prepare for the hearing. They only had three hours to prepare their clients for the trial, and each attorney was assigned to four people.
Kathryn Thickstun, a defense attorney appointed to represent defendants who cannot afford representation, gave the stories of her client’s during the court proceedings.
“I couldn’t let my clients not be heard as individuals and what their individual circumstances were. There are no two cases alike and this proceeding made them look like they were all the same,” Thickstun said.
Thickstun also expressed the challenges of the short amount of time to prepare for the trails.
“People have to make this decision for themselves to plead guilty or not guilty, their arms twisted by being told you’ll get time served for the most part. They’ve been in bad circumstances, housed inappropriately, not fed enough, no access to showers, they’re brought to court and told you’ll get time served if you just plead guilty, what would you want to do. Most just want to go home,” Thickstun said.
Magistrate Judge Jill Burkhardt heard the first cases for which there was a total 41 defendants. Thirty-five were Mexican nationals and six others were from other countries. Most of them responded in Spanish as the Judge spoke to them in English, and each one had been given a translation device. All were wearing the same clothes they wore when they were arrested.
Mass group prosecutions are not new and have been taking place in other parts of the U.S Mexico border, but not in California. The changes come after the Trump administration began to enforce its “Zero Tolerance” policies back in May, which prosecute anyone who crosses the border without permission.
While the group hearings have just started in San Diego, Thickstun said she considers them a bad use of resources.
“Prosecutors are saying the same thing. Their time is being taken away from far more serious crimes, their now not prosecuting some of their cases,” Thickstun said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego said in a statement that it was “committed to securing the border and enforcing criminal immigration laws in a way that respects due process and the dignity of all involved.”
Kasha K. Castillo, a supervisory attorney with the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. said defense attorneys were opposed to Operation Streamline.
“We had always been a district that had prided ourselves of not having a streamline and allowing people to have full process before making the decision of whether they were going to plead guilty or not guilty. Now that it’s here and we’re having people to plead the same on day one, we’re all very mad and sad about the system,” Castillo said.