Arizona clergy stand in witness to Operation Streamline injustices
“You are not guilty — this court is guilty.” One by one, Arizona clergy stood and recited that line in Spanish Monday, Dec. 14, and then began reading from scripture until they were individually escorted out of Tucson Federal Court by U.S. marshals.
The goal was to disrupt a session of Operation Streamline, court proceedings that have been taking place in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2005. Operation Streamline is a program of en masse, fast-track criminal prosecution of immigrants on charges of either illegal entry or re-entry after deportation. Critics have charged that the system lacks due process and violates defendants’ rights.
In addition to their public witness, the Tucson-area ministers — more than a dozen from United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) faith traditions, among others — released a statement pointing to the groundswell of support for ending Operation Streamline.
“As pastors in the borderlands of Southern Arizona, we join with community members, members of our congregations, human rights advocates, and many in the legal community in expressing our outrage over the proceedings of Operation Streamline,” the statement reads. “When we first observed these proceedings a few years ago, we were greatly concerned by what we witnessed in a courtroom in our community … But we feel that we can be silent observers no more. Each time we sat there silently, we felt as if, in some way, we were betraying the vows that we took as pastors to comfort those who sorrow.”
“We have disrupted the courts and we do not do so lightly, for the courtroom is in its own way a sacred place,” the statement continues. “But we disrupted the proceedings today because they have already been disrupted in a much more troubling way by Operation Streamline.”
The demonstration was one of several similar actions taking place between Dec. 9 and 18 in border communities across the southern United States to mark the 10th anniversary of Operation Streamline.
According to the End Streamline Coalition, a Tucson-based group seeking to decriminalize migration and end Operation Streamline, about 70 immigrants are tried every hour, eight handcuffed and chained-together defendants to a group, and receive sentences of between 30 and 180 days in prison — often serving sentences in locations far from their U.S. families and communities. Legal representation often amounts to a conversation 30 minutes prior to the court time, during which attorneys usually advise the defendants to plead guilty.
During the Dec. 14 proceedings, the clergy members stationed themselves around the courtroom. As each group of defendants was brought forward, a different clergyperson stood to witness against the injustice.
The Rev. Randy Mayer
“I was the second person to stand and address the court … the federal marshals were still trying to figure out what was happening,” said the Rev. Randy J. Mayer, senior minister of The Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., and group spokesperson. “I was able to read a full paragraph in Spanish from the Gospel of Luke 4:18-20: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
“The migrants in the courtroom turned around and were smiling … It was great to have a pastoral presence for the migrants, as they receive no pastoral care while they are in custody, and the U.S. Government will not allow us in to see them,” Mayer said.
A program of the Department of Homeland Security, Operation Streamline has transformed border enforcement practices. Prior to 2005, border patrol agents voluntarily returned first-time border crossers to their home countries or detained them and formally removed them from the United States through the civil immigration system. Operation Streamline removed that prosecutorial discretion and requires all undocumented border crossers to undergo criminal prosecution.
“The UCC National Collaborative on Immigration recently visited Operation Streamline,” said Noel Andersen, UCC and Church World Service national grassroots coordinator. “We were shocked at how the mass criminalization of immigration took shape. Seventy migrants in chains professed the term ‘culpable-guilty’ and received anywhere from three months to two years in prison for crossing the border, something that in the past was generally considered a civil violation. Many Church World Service member communions’ congregations have also witnessed this grave injustice and, together, we are working with the UCC to stop Operation Streamline.”
Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit fighting to end for-profit prisons and transform the justice and immigration systems, says that prosecution and prison sentences do nothing to deter the migration of people hoping to reunite with family or find work to support their families — they just make profit for the for-profit prison corporations. “Illegal entry” and “illegal re-entry” are now the two top criminal charges in federal court, comprising nearly 50 percent of the cases filed.
Currently, Operation Streamline operates in Tucson and in two Texas locales — Del Rio and Laredo.
“It is clear to us that Operation Streamline is immoral, unjust, and a sin against the poor and their families, and as pastors in this community we have an obligation to speak,” the clergy statement concluded.
“And so our witness in the court and in the public square today is … ‘this court is guilty of injustice to the migrant poor and their families. Tu no eres cupable, este corte es cupable!'”
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