Shackles, Operation Streamline, and Spokes in the Wheel | Sojourners

Shackles, Operation Streamline, and Spokes in the Wheel

Handcuffs and money, Siarhei Fedarenka /
Handcuffs and money, Siarhei Fedarenka /

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. — Hebrews 13:3

Where are defendants, who have committed no atrocious crimes, denied due process, shackled en masse before a judge, and sentenced during a trial of assembly-line justice? The answer: the daily proceedings in the federal courthouses of Tucson, Ariz., and a few other border locations. But anti-immigrant masterminds in Arizona did not think up this “zero tolerance” program. It is the result of powerful lobbying by private prison companies and our political willingness to harshly criminalize unauthorized migration.

Operation Streamline began in 2005 in Texas and 2008 in Arizona as part of the deterrence strategy of border enforcement. Instead of the typical civil violation, it charges people who cross the border without authorization with criminal misdemeanors (punishable by up to six months in federal prison) and then felonies (punishable 20 years) to those who return after a past deportation. Sen. John McCain, (R - Ariz.) has proposed an expansion of the program as part of immigration reform. 

But according to a recent report, the federal government already has spent an estimated $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system for unauthorized entry and re-entry since 2005. Unauthorized entry/re-entry have recently become the two most prosecuted crimes in the entire federal judicial system. Consequently, Latinos now represent more than 50 percent of all those sentenced to federal prison despite making up only 16 percent of the U.S. population.

I will never forget the first time I sat in the courtroom of Operation Streamline soon after it was initiated in Tucson. It was overwhelmingly disturbing. Sixty-to-80 immigrants shuffled into the room with shackles binding their ankles, wrists, and waists. They had just minutes to meet with a public defender, who urged them to plead guilty and accept their sentence. The judge asked some questions to the entire group and accepted group responses to expedite the process. The judge then addressed the defendants one by one, allowing 30-to-60 seconds each. And on this day, there were a handful of immigrants who delayed the impersonal and mechanistic process by adding their own voice and story to the record — a simple, yet powerful, act of resistance. When the judge asked if one individual acknowledged his guilt in breaking U.S. law and entering the country without authorization, the man was supposed to say "culpable" (guilty or blameworthy), but instead, he responded that he was not a criminal. His wife and children are here. They are struggling to survive without him. He has no family or livelihood in Mexico.

The judge responded that there was nothing she could do about his circumstance, sentencing him to a few weeks in prison. And with the clunk of her gavel, she marked this man with a criminal record and moved on to the next.

As concerned community members, we decided to hold a presence in the courtroom every day of the week. Yet the U.S. Marshals would not so much as allow two-fingers held up in peace, lips mouthing Dios los bendiga (God bless you all), or any other sign of solidarity to signal to those in shackles that we are there because we know this is wrong. With our unearned privileges of citizenship, skin color, or social status, we sat in the benches, increasingly enraged and disturbed that we, too, may be considered complicit in these grinding wheels of injustice by sitting quietly and watching.

The church's task is not simply to bind the wounds of the victim beneath the wheel of injustice, but also to put a spoke in the wheel itself.

This statement by the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer has come alive for me after working as a humanitarian at the U.S.-Mexico border. I have spent years caring for the wounds endured by migrants from the deadly and abusive border crossing. These same migrants I may recognize just days later, limping into the courtrooms of Operation Streamline. They have been caught — caught in the profit-driven machine disguised as the "justice system" and designed to produce criminals and fill prisons.

Thus, the good immigrant / bad immigrant dilemma has been falsely created and upheld. Those with record-breaking profits from imprisoning immigrants since the inception of Operation Streamline have a lot of wealth at stake if the "criminal immigrant" narrative is challenged. As immigrants are increasingly criminalized and then dismissed in the immigration reform debate, Christians have a clear biblical imperative to question this unjust system of criminalization and profiteering, and to stand with the "criminal."

God desires to set the imprisoned immigrants free.

The more than 100 biblical references to prisons and prisoners are clear: Scripture consistently gives the mandate to visit the prisoner, release the captive, and let the oppressed go free. The word of God repeatedly highlights the voices of those who have been imprisoned; some of these "criminal" prophets and disciples include Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Zedekiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Silas, Paul, and of course Jesus himself, a convicted and executed criminal.

I may never be shackled in an attempt to care for my family, but because of my faith and care for my immigrant neighbors, I cannot sit quietly by. A spoke must be driven into the wheel of Operation Streamline. I pray you will join us.

Maryada Vallet, originally from Arizona, has kept busy as a border humanitarian, health professional, catholic worker and activist on the US-Mexico border since 2005. Most recently, Maryada has worked with World Vision International in humanitarian response, with her alma mater Azusa Pacific University as an adjunct, and as a consultant for international organizations. For more on US-Mexico border humanitarian work and faith-based principles for immigration reform

Photo: Handcuffs and money, Siarhei Fedarenka /