The Intercept: Conover Recommends Halt of Operation Streamline

Operation Streamline is a well-funded, deeply-entrenched program in Tucson federal court that pulls impoverished migrants out of the desert – dehydrated and exhausted – and prosecutes them for often nothing more than the “crime” of illegal entry into the U.S. Since 2008, I have lectured on the humanitarian and constitutional problems with Streamline. Last week, looking at the cramped conditions of these vulnerable people, I successfully pressed the Court to suspend the program.

Leadership in this moment must be decisive. Crisis management is part of my administrative work, and the work today readies me for our work tomorrow. Please read the Intercept’s coverage of our local federal court and share widely.

“Laura Conover, the Criminal Justice Act representative for hundreds of private lawyers who often provide legal defense for Streamline defendants in Tucson, told The Intercept that she first became concerned about the continuation of the enforcement program last Wednesday. “My sense was that Streamline was literally the epitome of a massive gathering of people.”

Conover had spent her day fielding questions from concerned lawyers and U.S. Marshals. She then spent her evening watching as her husband, a community college administrator, and his colleagues reached the conclusion that it was necessary to suspend onsite learning at campuses in southern Arizona. The following morning, Conover sent a memo to two supervising judges in Tucson laying out her concerns.

“If conditions are not safe enough right now for college students to remain on campus, then I must very humbly request that Streamline proceedings be temporarily suspended,” she wrote. “All detainees who are brought in to the Special Proceedings room in Tucson arrive with an immune system compromised to various degrees by exhaustion and dehydration.” Just last month, a federal judge in Arizona issued a permanent injunction against the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, after a seven-day trial offered evidence of squalid and inhumane conditions in the agency’s holding cells. “Those detention conditions are highly favorable for the spread of germs,” Conover wrote. “Unlike other illnesses dealt with before, officials are concerned that patients may be positive for Covid before they are symptomatic.”

“Given all this, and despite the outstanding efforts by court administration and the Marshals, it seems that court staff present in the [Operation Streamline] courtroom in the morning, interpreters, deputy Marshals, attorneys, the detainees, and the bench are at a much higher risk than other populations currently receiving protection right now,” Conover went on to say. “This request is not made lightly. In fact, it is made with great trepidation. But it seems incumbent on me as representative of the panel to do so.”

Launched in 2005, Streamline has been a core component of the U.S. approach to border enforcement for three consecutive presidential administrations. For border hawks, the program is a key node in the government’s so-called consequence delivery system. For critics, the program is routinely held up as a glaring example of government resources gone to waste, and bedrock notions of American justice gone haywire.

Southern Arizona has long been home to the nation’s largest and most active Streamline pipeline. Typically, the people who appear in Streamline there have been arrested after spending hours, days, or sometimes weeks trekking through one of the most dangerous ecosystems on the planet — the Sonoran Desert — a journey that experts say is inherently compromising for the body’s immune system. They are then held for hours or days in the notorious Border Patrol detention cells cited in last month’s trial, often at one of the agency’s remote outposts. From there, they are generally moved onto buses, which private contractors then drive to downtown Tucson. The exhausted men and women are then marched through the bowels of the federal courthouse to appear before a judge, often dressed in the same clothes they wore when they crossed the desert.

For years, chained immigrant defendants in Arizona testified to their charges en masse, still wearing their chains — an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit eventually put a stop to that. These days, the defendants remove their shackles in a hallway outside the courtroom, appear in smaller groups and enter pleas individually. The feeling of a conveyor belt prosecutions, however, remains. In 2014, former Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco boasted that his personal “record” for prosecuting dozens of defendants under Streamline was 30 minutes.

The Streamline suspension comes as stakeholders from across the immigration enforcement world are increasingly sounding the alarm that, in the shadow of the coronavirus, the nation’s detention and court system is a source of mounting danger for virtually everyone it touches — especially the tens of thousands of men, women, and children currently in government custody. On Sunday night, the leading unions representing Immigration Customs Enforcement prosecutors and immigration judges, as well as a national association of more than 15,000 immigration attorneys and law professors, issued an unprecedented joint letter calling for the immediate shut down of immigration courts across the country. “Our nation is currently in the throes of a historic global pandemic,” the groups wrote.

Shortly before midnight last night, the Department of Justice announced by tweet that it was postponing immigration hearings at several courts across the country.

Conover, who is currently running for Pima County attorney, said that her decision to speak out over Streamline’s continuation was not easy. “It’s sort of like looking at just a huge behemoth, a massively funded program, and saying we should pause this,” she explained. “Writing that memo to the bench about a program that’s so powerful and so entrenched was a really frightening moment, to be honest,” she said. “But I couldn’t not write it.””