Thursday, November 18, 2010

"And for what?"

Last weekend I went to Tucson, AZ with 15 members of a religious community I belong to called Loretto.  I went to see for myself the ways that undocumented people are treated in Arizona and also to participate in a protest at Ft. Huachuca, which is where “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which a layperson might be forgiven for mistaking for torture) are taught. 

Friday we went to the Federal Courthouse to witness “Operation Streamline” which is a way of moving hundreds of undocumented people through the court system quickly.  About 50 men and 7 women, ages varying from 18-40, sat waiting their fate.  They were  handcuffed and these cuffs were in turn attached to a chain that went around their waist, and their feet were shackled.  A bevy of public defenders sat near them.  We were the only people in the audience.  There were also a small number of border patrol agents and two US Marshals.  The prosecuting attorney, called throughout the day, “the government” wore a light colored linen suit, but everyone else was in a dark wool suit, except the accused, who of course wore whatever they had on at the time of their arrest.  All of them had been arrested Nov 10 and their trial was Nov. 12. 

Except for the shackling, the proceedings were surprisingly humane.  The Judge seemed genuinely kind and concerned that the accused understand what they were accused of, and what their options were.  Each of the accused had a headset and everything was translated into Spanish.  The Judge explained slowly and carefully what would happen in the court room and often paused to see if there were any questions or concerns.  There were none. 

The accused were brought to the front of the courtroom in groups of seven.  They were each asked a series of questions:

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?  (or in two cases, Guatemala)”   Answer “Si”
“On or about Nov. 10, did you enter the United States at a time or a place not approved of by the US immigration service?”   Answer: “Si”
“Did anyone threaten you or promised you anything for the plea you are about to enter?”  Answer:  “No.”
They were then told what they were accused of again, (“petty offense of entering the US illegally”) and asked as a group “how do you plead?”
Answer in unison:    “Cupable”  (Guilty.) 

The Judge then handed down sentences of 30-150 days (depending on how many times they have committed this offense)  to be served in a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Florence, AZ.  They then shuffled out of the courtroom, and the next group of seven went to the front. 

Immigration is very much a commons issue.  In a “commons” world, there would either be no borders at all, or people would be welcomed at borders.  “Welcome to our country!  We hope you enjoy your visit and that you find our culture and way of life kind and friendly.  We hope you will share some of your culture with us.”  Of course in a commons world, people would only travel to other countries if they wanted to and not because they felt forced to by desperate poverty. 

How much further from a commons world we are is evidenced in the treatment of these prisoners.  Someone not knowing what the proceedings were about could well conclude that these people must be, at the very least, serial killers or war criminals.  To have hands and feet shackled for the “crime” of coming into the USA, and no other crime, is absurd.  

I was most struck again by the total commodification of everything (neo-liberalism).  These people come to the US to do work for a low wage.  This allows their employers to make more money and thus these undocumented workers are worth quite a bit.  But now, whether they work or not, they are valuable commodities because taxpayers will pay CCA (the private prison) $2,270 per month to house them.  This makes them profitable as prisoners.  Prior to the private prisons, a public defender told us, they would simply have been deported.  Now they serve time and then are deported, making each of them a profit center.  The sheer cost of arresting, prosecuting, sentencing, housing in prison and then deporting these workers, is staggering.  A public defender calculated that the Judge handed down $300,000 worth of prison time in the two hours we were in court.  That same judge will preside over another 70-100 accused in the afternoon, and does this five days a week.  Almost 1,000 undocumented people a week are sent to Florence and then deported, for a total of over $2 million of federal tax money paid per week to a private prison.   This total does not include those undocumented people who are accused of more serious crimes of drug trafficking or robbery or driving under the influence who are tried separately. 

A public defender we spoke with afterward said this entire process is a money-generating scheme and a gross injustice.  It has gotten much worse since 9/11, and will get worse if SB 1070 is found to be legal (it is currently in court).  He also noted that there are Russians, Poles, and Asians in Tucson illegally, but they are never brought in front of a judge or deported.  “The system is aimed at Mexicans and Latin Americans. No other undocumented people are dealt with this way.”    He voiced the question in all our minds, “And for what?  For what?”

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