John Moore / Getty Images

For some migrants, a familiar journey from the desert to detention

Controversial and inconsistent immigration policies converge in a Texas courtroom

LAREDO, Texas — The chilled air of courtroom 3C grew slightly musty as the first of four groups of migrants filed in and formed two lines in front of Judge Guillermo Garcia. The 21 men and two women were all detained by Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico, except for two who attempted to enter officially using fraudulent documents.

Most wore blue jeans over boots or sneakers and casual tops — T-shirts, golf shirts and sweatshirts — and hadn’t showered in days. All were equipped with black headsets to hear a Spanish translation of the proceeding.

“Please stop me if you have any questions, but do not lie to me,” Garcia told them after the group had been sworn in. “Each of you is now under oath.”

It’s business as usual at magistrate court in Laredo — a mostly Latino border town (pop. 250,000) near the southern tip of Texas where the country’s opaque, controversial and sometimes inconsistent immigration policies play out on a daily basis. While immigration from Mexico is at a 40-year low, the legal consequences for migrants caught attempting to enter the country are at an all-time high, thanks in part to Operation Streamline. The controversial zero-tolerance Border Patrol policy aims to deter illegal immigration by prosecuting as many unauthorized adult immigrants as possible in the federal criminal justice system in eerily efficient mass hearings. Started in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005, it’s now in seven southwest border districts, including Laredo.

Hundreds of immigrants are prosecuted at the federal courthouse in Laredo, Tex., each week. Laredo public defender John C. Paul estimates 80 percent of his cases are for illegal entry.
Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

Prior to Operation Streamline, unauthorized border crossers were traditionally returned to their countries with a civil, not criminal, offense. Under Streamline, people convicted of a first-time illegal entry in certain border zones can face a maximum penalty of six months in federal prison and a fine. Perhaps more punitive, they receive a criminal record that excludes them from future legal residence or entry for at least 10 years. If they are caught and processed through Operation Streamline a second time, an illegal re-entry charge is prosecuted as a felony, with a sentence of up to two years or, if there’s an additional criminal record, up to 20 years.

The stated goal is to lower recidivism rates — which, according to data from the Congressional Research Service, Customs and Border Protection has had some success in doing through Streamline. For fiscal year 2012, the recidivism rate for repatriated migrants was 10.3 percent for those who were Streamlined, compared with 16.4 percent for those who received an expedited removal (a civil, not criminal, procedure) and just over 27 percent for those who were voluntarily returned.

Because of its location just north of the border and along major highways that lead to San Antonio (I-35) and Houston (US-59), Laredo sees its share of human, drug, cash and gun smuggling cases. But the vast majority of cases in its federal court are illegal entries. The U.S. Border Patrol’s Laredo sector apprehended over 50,000 unauthorized immigrants last year, more than any other district except the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Tucson, Arizona.

‘I made a mistake crossing the US illegally. I was just trying to make a better future for my family.’

Arturo Flores-Decerra

Mexican migrant sentenced to 180 days

All but one of the approximately 80 cases before Garcia one recent morning were illegal entries or re-entries.

One by one, the defendants stated their names — Jonathan Omar Zambrano-Sepulveda. Karen Liseth Reyes-Ortiz. Jonathan Hernandez-Salcedo. Edgar Omar Calderon-Romo. Jose Alcantar-Baeza.

They were asked if they understood the charges against them, to which each, one after another, responded “Sí.” They were asked if they were under the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication or had any history of psychiatric problems or brain injury. All said “No.” They were asked if they understood the rights read to them and how they wanted to plead.

“Culpable.” “Culpable.” “Culpable.” Twenty-three guilty pleas.

A typical sentence for a first-time illegal entry is five days to serve and a $10 cost assessment. Once sentenced, the men and women removed their headsets and filed out of the courtroom. Moments later the next group filed in — 26 men and one woman — and the ritual began anew — the sís, the nos, the culpables.

While these immigrants may be facing criminal charges for illegal entry for the first time, many were caught trying to cross the border before but were not processed through Operation Streamline and therefore avoided a felony re-entry charge — for now. Depending on these histories, their sentences increase to 10, 20, 45, 90 and 180 days.

Anticipating harsher sentences, more of the defendants with histories of multiple entries offered statements before receiving their sentences.

Every weekday before dawn, unmarked buses pull into the courthouse to drop off dozens of men and women caught illegally entering the U.S.
Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

“No, the only thing is that I know it’s wrong,” said Oscar Rodriguez-Rodriguez, sentenced to 20 days.

“I feel like I made a mistake crossing the border again,” said Angel Alberto Jimenez-Andrade, sentenced to 20 days.

“The only thing I can say is that I entered the United States to work and help my family,” said Victor Ruben Cisneros-Espinoza, sentenced to 25 days.

“I just want to say I made a mistake entering the United States. That’s all,” said Junior Oswaldo Hernandez, from Honduras, sentenced to 45 days.

“I made a mistake crossing the U.S. illegally,” said Arturo Flores-Decerra, before receiving a sentence of 100 days. “I was just trying to make a better future for my family.”

An estimated 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants are living in the U.S. — roughly 60 percent of them Mexican. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, fewer Mexicans cross illegally into the U.S. each year, because of a mix of factors, including relatively high U.S. unemployment, improved economic conditions in Mexico and increased border enforcement. U.S. immigration officials apprehended 662,483 aliens last year, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics — the fewest since 1973. The number of Mexicans apprehended was just a third of what it was 10 years ago.

Yet during the same period, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, to 21,391 agents, and immigration enforcement spending has more than tripled. Penalties for crossing have also soared. Ten years ago, just 17 percent of repatriated aliens were formally removed, while 83 percent were simply returned. Last year 71 percent were formally removed and 29 percent returned without charges, according to DHS data.

Besides being a boon to private, for-profit prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, Operation Streamline has put an enormous strain on the criminal justice system, particularly magistrate courts like Laredo’s.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than half of federal criminal prosecutions in the U.S. today are for immigration-related crimes — most commonly illegal entry (a misdemeanor) and illegal re-entry after a removal (a felony).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement together refer more cases than all Department of Justice law enforcement agencies combined, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Immigration enforcement spending topped $18 billion in fiscal year 2012.

“You’re criminalizing migration, people with no other criminal history except crossing the border,” said Astrid Dominguez, advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Yet while all unauthorized border crossers picked up in the Operation Streamline districts are supposed to be processed through the courts, many are still voluntarily returned or removed without criminal charges. According to the DHS’ “Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2013” report, approximately 178,000 aliens — including 20 percent of all Mexican aliens — were returned to their home countries last year without a removal order.

Even those who work closely with the immigration system are unclear why some are returned and others are removed.

“Honestly, Border Patrol has explained to us a couple of times, and we feel maybe they don’t even understand,” said Alan Hubbard Frias, a protection officer at the Mexican consulate in Laredo. (A representative of the consul visits the court each morning to meet with the Mexican detainees.)

According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, “USBP agents use laminated cards with matrices describing the range of enforcement actions available for a particular alien as a function of the person’s immigration and criminal histories, among other factors, and of the enforcement resources available in each Border Patrol sector.”

“Certain apprehended aliens who appear to be inadmissible or deportable may be offered the opportunity to voluntarily return to their home country in lieu of formal removal proceedings before an immigration judge,” the “Immigration Enforcement Actions” report states.

Customs and Border Protection public affairs representatives in Laredo and South Texas, as well as spokespersons for the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, did not reply to multiple calls and emails requesting clarification on how agents decide who is voluntarily returned and who is processed through Operation Streamline and criminally prosecuteded.

John C. Paul is a public defender at the Laredo District Court. He estimates 80 percent of his cases are illegal entries. “We never know the details of their programs,” he said of DHS operations like Streamline. “We just deal with the result.”

What is clear is that the rate migrants are processed through Operation Streamline varies by sector and can fluctuate.

Earlier this summer, Laredo was one of the southwestern Texas communities that scrambled to cope with the unexpected and unprecedented surge of families and unaccompanied children arriving from Central America. During that period, Border Patrol was simply too swamped with families and children seeking asylum to prosecute their standard deportation caseload, according to Hubbard.

“I remember there was a day nine people were presented,” he said. “People were still coming across. Border Patrol was just overloaded.”

Hubbard said the case numbers have returned to normal, which is 60 to 70 Mexicans per day and another couple dozen OTMs — “other than Mexicans” in immigration law enforcement speak. OTMs most often come from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador but occasionally from more-distant countries such as Brazil, Dominican Republic and Peru.

According to Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. district attorney’s office in Brownsville, Texas, has suspended Operation Streamline because it was swamped with the child migrant crisis. “There they’re going after the full prosecutions for smugglers and serious charges, and they’re not bothering with the Streamline cases because they’re not seeing enough bang for the buck on those.”

But in courtroom 3C in Laredo, the assembly-line justice continued, with a few pauses for personal pleas.

Your honor, he knows he’s in a difficult position, but he came here because he has 10 children in Mexico that he’s trying to take care of,” Paul, the public defender, said of Eleuterio Moreno-Linan, who stood before the judge in a green longsleeve shirt under a green T-shirt. According to court records, it was Moreno’s fourth time caught entering the U.S. illegally.

“Mr. Moreno, I understand your desire to come to this country, but you’ve already been prosecuted twice for this offense, and you’ve served four months and six months,” Garcia said before sentencing him to the maximum 180 days. “As a result of that crime, you keep on coming to this country, you’re going to most likely continue to be arrested, and the sentences will most likely simply increase.”

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