TUCSON — The smell in the courtroom is overpowering.

About 40 men and two women fill seven rows of benches in the special proceedings courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Tucson—fewer than the maximum of 70 who shuffle through here every weekday at 1:30 pm. Their ankles are shackled, the handcuffs on their wrists attached to chains around their waists. They look exhausted, confused, and ashamed. They range in age from 18 upwards, but the majority look no older than 25. Most of them are Mexican, more than a handful are Honduran and Guatemalan, and all of them were caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Some of the men and women have spent the past two or three days in detention without showering or changing their clothes. Others were picked up by Border Patrol in the desert this morning, their skin and clothing still caked in dirt and sweat.

Before entering the courtroom today, these men and women were given about 20 minutes, an hour at most, with a court-appointed attorney. The lawyers are contracted and paid upwards of $100 an hour to explain the charges against the detainees and, in almost every case, encourage them to plead guilty.

Everyone in the room today is being charged with two crimes: the petty crime of illegal entry and the felony of re-entry after removal. In other words, they’ve all been deported at least once before and they were all caught trying to cross again. Some look at their feet, or gaze around the courtroom, others stare blankly at Judge Bruce McDonald as he explains the penalties they face: a maximum of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine, a criminal conviction, and deportation. A translator echoes the judge’s words into Spanish through plastic headsets that hang below their chins like broken stethoscopes. When McDonald asks if everyone can understand him, one man raises his hand and explains that he speaks an indigenous language and doesn’t understand Spanish very well. The judge tells him to sit tight and wait for his case to be individually handled at the end of the proceeding. Then he moves on.

McDonald calls the defendants to stand before him in groups of five at a time. Their court-appointed defense attorneys stand a step behind them, sometimes with a hand on their backs. As each group of five gets up, the remaining defendants scoot to the end of the bench, waiting their turn. McDonald goes down the line asking each defendant the same questions and receiving the same answers:

“Do you understand the charges against you?”


‘Are you pleading guilty voluntarily?”


“Are you a citizen of Mexico (or Guatemala or Honduras)?”


“Did you enter the U.S. through a designated port of entry?”


“How do you plead?”

“Culpable.” Guilty.

Judge McDonald doles out sentences, ranging from 20 to 180 days in prison, and one by one and the defendants are escorted out of the courtroom by U.S. Marshals, only to be replaced by the next five. After less than two hours, all of the day’s defendants have been sentenced and escorted out of the courtroom by U.S. Marshals except one: the man who could not understand Spanish or English at the beginning of the hearing. Judge McDonald asks the U.S. prosecutor, Chris Lewis, if he wants to reschedule another court appearance for this man and try to find a translator who speaks his native language. Without much of a pause, Lewis chooses to drop the charges against this man. McDonald attempts to impart on him the severity of the consequences he will face should he find himself back in this courtroom.

“Do not try to cross illegally again,” he says.

This is a scene that takes place every weekday in federal courtrooms in every state along the U.S.-Mexico border except California. Criminal convictions for illegally crossing the border are issued in bulk proceedings that take no more than a couple of hours. It’s part of a program called Operation Streamline, which was introduced under the Bush administration in 2005 as a means of expeditiously slapping a criminal conviction on every person caught illegally entering the country without technically denying their basic rights to due process. In the nearly 10 years that it’s been around, the number of new Operation Streamline cases has increased by 300 percent. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) Immigration, 97,000 new cases were filed in 2013—an all-time, nationwide high.

These group court proceedings are just one part of the U.S.’s larger “zero-tolerance” criminalization policy that, over the past decade, has catapulted immigration past drugs, firearms and white-collar crime as the most prosecuted federal offense in the country. The goal is to deter illegal immigration by raising the stakes: Not only do illegal border crossers face criminal charges and deportation if caught, they face prison time. Whether it works depends on whom you ask. Indisputable—though largely unrecognized—however, are the unprecedented numbers of incarcerated immigrants the policy has produced—and the increasing need for more space to house them.

Enter private prisons: a booming industry that is capitalizing on that need.

Over the past decade or so, the responsibility of housing convicted immigrants along the southwest border has increasingly been contracted out to private prison companies on the American taxpayers’ dime. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of ICE detainees held in private prisons grew 206 percent, while the U.S. Marshal Service sent 322 percent more of its detainees to private prisons. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Bureau of Prisons spent about $600 million on private prison contracts in fiscal year 2013.

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