The defendants appeared before the judge in shackles. One thick chain snaked around the waist and attached at the wrists. Another strung the ankles, jangling with each step. Border Patrol had removed their shoelaces, so tongues of boots and sneakers flapped open around each foot.
Waves of six to eight people, mostly men, shuffled from court benches to a row of microphone podiums before the judge. Six middle-aged male attorneys milled about in tan, navy and seersucker suits.
This was Operation Streamline, a Department of Homeland Security “zero tolerance” policy that processes immigration cases in mass hearings. Before the Tucson sector of the border adopted Operation Streamline in 2008, unauthorized border crossings were handled through civil deportation proceedings. In U.S. District Court on Friday, June 7, about 30 immigrants accepted plea deals in 40 minutes, after the judge asked each a series of five questions. One attorney said this was a light day: Some hearings can process 70 people in a session.
But Operation Streamline was just one of many of the day’s proceedings that represented the complexities of immigration in America. If one walked from room to room in Tucson's federal courthouse, or if it were possible to cut off the building’s facade like a dollhouse, what happened inside on that Friday would reveal stark, dueling visions of U.S. immigration policy: acceptance or exile, chains or cheers.
A 2010 policy brief published by University of California, Berkeley Law School said Operation Streamline “has caused skyrocketing caseloads in many federal district courts along the border.” When San Diego’s federal court began Operation Streamline hearings this July — as the most recent court to adopt the practice — the court’s prosecutions increased by 1,200 percent, according to the ACLU.
Isabel Garcia, who was Pima County’s Legal Defender for 22 years before her retirement in 2015, said Operation Streamline created a job boom in Tucson’s federal court. Because of this, she worries about conflict of interest.
“It’s their bread and butter,” Garcia said in an interview. “This court exists because of immigration cases. It gives everyone their jobs who’s in that courthouse. It’s the least known aspect of militarization along our border.”
Each Streamline defendant was charged with two crimes: illegal entry, a misdemeanor, and the felony of illegal reentry. They all meet with their assigned attorneys only the morning before the trial and appear in the clothes they were wearing when they were apprehended. For most people today, this means a black or dark grey t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
Nearly every one pleads guilty, following public defenders’ advice. the state drops the felony charge, imprisons them for 30 to 180 days and deports them after time served. The criminal charges are a strike against them in any future attempts to legally immigrate to the United States.
That same hour, directly one floor below, a very different scene was unfolding. There, in another courtroom, was a naturalization ceremony.
“You are as much of an American as I am,” said Hon. D. Thomas Ferrero after new citizens finished their oath of allegiance. “You are 100 percent American. Congratulations.”
The room was filled with small children on parents’ laps, many crinkling plastic-wrapped bouquets as the crowd erupted in applause.
But the court’s most publicized case that day was happening a few rooms down the hall. It involved the future of immigration, and revealed how contentious the topic in general has become. Dozens of people were there to observe closing arguments in the felony trial of Scott Warren.
Warren is a border-aid volunteer with No More Deaths, an organization that leaves clothing and jugs of water for people who have crossed the border through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and are headed north on foot.
Warren was charged with two counts of felony harboring and one count of felony conspiracy after allowing two men — Kristian Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and Jose Sacaria-Goday from Honduras — to stay three nights at No More Deaths’ barn, which the group uses as a base for remote desert work. The barn is in Ajo, Arizona, less than 40 miles north of the border and more than 100 miles from Tucson. There Warren offered Villanueva and Goday food, water, beds and clean clothes, according to court documents.
“Scott Warren’s life is about preventing suffering, alleviating suffering and providing humanitarian aid to those much less fortunate than him, or than we are,” said defense attorney Gregory Kuykendall.
When the federal prosecution delivered closing remarks just a few minutes later, the courtroom again seemed a microcosm of the country’s political climate with two sides pushing alternate narratives of reality. While this is typical in a criminal trial, the clash of wills resonated with people far beyond the courtroom: To those rallying outside the courthouse with homemade signs and the more than 130,000 who petitioned for his charges to be dropped, Warren showed compassion, working to help his fellow man in accordance with his faith.
To federal prosecutors, Warren was the leader of a subversive conspiracy to traffic people into the country and skirt immigration law.
The United Nations human rights division has publicly called for the charges against Warren to be dropped.
Villanueva and Goday were deported after lawyers recorded their testimony, according to court documents.
One of the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright, argued in her closing statement that Warren’s aid efforts were unnecessary.
“Jose and Kristian were never lost in the desert. They didn’t need help,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright. “This is not about deaths in the desert, or a crisis. They were never in danger.”
This comment sparked guffaws and head shaking from the mix of tattooed, septum-pierced millennials and neatly dressed retirees seated in the overflow room.
“That’s bullshit,” said 77-year old Susan Mast from one of the back rows. She wore hiking sandals and a small outdoors pack slung across her chest. A retired math teacher who has lived in Tucson for the past 50 years, Mast volunteers at the border with a group called Tucson Samaritans. Like No More Deaths, the Samaritans distribute food and water and medical care to immigrants crossing the Arizona desert. She, like other border aid volunteers,came to the trial in solidarity.
Mast rejected the prosecution’s argument that the desert was safe. She recalls her training when she first joined the Samaritans’ desert patrol, when she was taught circling birds often signal nearby human remains.
More than 100 migrant corpses have been found along Arizona’s southern border in 2019, according to data from non-profit organization Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Most are in remote, unincorporated stretches of desert.
“We know the truth,” Mast said. “There’s no way you can carry enough water to get through the desert.”
Warren’s case resulted in a mistrial after two and a half days of deliberation, with jurors 8-4 for acquittal. His retrial is scheduled for Nov. 12. Prosecutors have offered Warren a plea deal that would drop the felony charges if he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of aiding and abetting illegal entry.