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PROVIDENCE JOURNAL: 'Steamlined' in Arizona

June 12th, 2011

By Martin Lepkowski

Every weekday, 52 weeks a year, a federal courtroom in Tucson is filled with upwards of 70 undocumented immigrants, men and women chained and manacled at the wrist, waist and ankles. This is a court that knows no jury. The jury box as well as the rest of the court room is filled with these defendants.

In response to the hundreds of immigrants arrested each day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has instituted a court that “streamlines” the judicial process.

For every six defendants there is but one public defender. These defendants are scattered around the courtroom, making it impossible for their lawyers to meet separately with them, and in fact most lawyers never meet with their clients until the day of their court proceedings.

Defendants approach the bench eight at a time, heads bowed. The judge reads them their rights. However, some of these immigrants speak primarily an indigenous language, while others can neither read nor write. On the recent day I was there, all 70 defendants pleaded guilty.

However, what these detainees may not know is that by pleading guilty they risk facing serious jail time if ever convicted again of illegally entering the country. This conviction would then be considered a felony.

It has been documented that in the past five years when the “streamlined court” has been in place not one case has gone to trial. These court proceedings appear to violate the right to due process, accepting pleas from defendants who lack understanding of the proceedings and the charges against them.

On that recent day, all 70 defendants were adjudicated in a little over an hour. Sadly, one never got to hear the reason why these immigrants would leave their families and trek across a scorching desert where the risk of dying for some is a certainty. Last year alone, says No More Deaths, a rights organization, over 253 immigrants died trying to cross the border.

The court proceedings over, a tired-looking judge approached us. He proceeded to tell us how “fed up” he was with what had just transpired in his court. He stated that our immigration policy is “chaotic” and that immigration reform was needed, but that Congress did not have the political will to pass any meaningful legislation. I pointed out to the judge how the North American Free Trade Agreement helped contribute to the mass exodus from their native lands of so many immigrants who pass through his court.

Candidly, the judge stated that there are many vested interests in keeping the present immigration policy in place. He cited the increase in his own court system, where the number of court personnel has quadrupled.

Other vested interests can be found in the increase in the funding of the Border Patrol, other parts of the homeland security apparatus and the privately owned prison systems that house thousands upon thousands of undocumented immigrants with little or no oversight.

There is one particular image of my day in the streamlined court that continues to haunt me –– the face of a bewildered man who looked me in the eye as he filed by. I helplessly gave him thumbs up. He nodded his head and did the same as he slipped away. I never got to hear his story.

U.S. taxpayers can spend billions of dollars to build walls and prisons but this issue will not go away. What is needed is a just immigration-reform policy. We need a fair-trade agreement, not a free-trade agreement that continues to impoverish the poor in Mexico, forcing them to migrate.

Our congressional delegations need to hear from us on immigration reform. The sounds of chains scraping across the floors of our courtrooms demands this of us.

To read the article in the Providence Journal, click here.