California, pressed by US, begins mass immigration hearings

The group hearings have become a near-necessity as President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy against illegal immigration has led to an overwhelming number of cases.

Published: 15th July 2018 06:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th July 2018 06:16 AM   |  A+A-

People taking part in a protest against Trump's immigration policies. (File| AFP)

By AFP

SAN DIEGO: The judge has called the court into session, and the accused enter in single file: seven men and two women, undocumented migrants captured the day before and now facing one of the mass immigration hearings that began this week in California.

The group hearings have become a near-necessity as President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy against illegal immigration has led to an overwhelming number of cases.

Other states bordering Mexico have employed this legal model since 2005, but California had resisted, only acquiescing when the caseload became unmanageable.

The defendants, seated side by side, are wearing the clothes they were arrested in. 

Their faces reflect the deep fatigue of people who have not slept or eaten well, coupled with the weary resignation of those who know that, after all their struggles to reach the US, they are about to be deported. 

Their lawyers were able to meet with them only hours before the hearing -- in a room in the courthouse basement -- to explain that this is a criminal, not an immigration, court and that the charges they face could bring sentences of up to six months in prison. 

Prosecutors tell them that if they plead guilty, they can escape jail -- but will be deported immediately.

But lawyers and immigration activists decry the approach, saying the sentences being handed down leave the immigrants with the stain of a permanent criminal record. 

That will weigh heavily against them if they seek a visa in the future -- or even request asylum.

"It's set up in a way for people to literally be processed like an assembly line," Michelle Angeles, a public defense lawyer, told AFP.

At Friday's hearing, she is representing Jose Sanchez, a 27-year-old high school dropout.

"How do you plead?" he is asked in court.

"Culpable," he mumbles in Spanish, which an interpreter then translates: "Guilty."

Questioned one by one by Judge Michael D. Dembin, the others respond similarly: "Guilty... not American... I understand the sentence."

- 'I'm not releasing them' -

From the start of the hearing, the defendants' lawyers engaged in a heated debate with Dembin.

They asked him to cancel the hearing and to release the defendants on bail. 

They decried the lack of time they were given to consult with their clients, as well as the conditions in which they found them: some having had no chance to bathe or brush their teeth before their court appearance.

"I'm not dismissing the cases, I'm not releasing them," the judge replied in a tone of clear frustration, adding that in five days, he had had to deal with 60 other guilty pleas. "This is not a town hall meeting!"

Dembin said he had no choice but to follow directives from above. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had insisted that California join other states in the "zero tolerance" approach.

Most of the nine accused in Dembin's courtroom were Mexicans, and they had more or less the same story: they had come in search of a better life in the United States, hoping to earn more money to help their families. 

There was Rocio Garcia, a single mother of 26, who had paid "coyotes" -- human traffickers -- to get her across the border; Lucio Martinez, 24, who wanted to work as a cook to help support his infant child; and Juan Manuel Murillo, 41, who needs eye surgery.

These mass hearings -- known as "Operation Streamline" -- began in Texas in 2005 under then-president George W. Bush, who implemented a "zero tolerance" policy of his own.

Previously, border guards would deport first-time offenders through the civil immigration system. 

Criminal prosecution was reserved for those with criminal records or for those undocumented migrants who had made repeated attempts to cross the border.

With so many people arriving from so many places with so many different stories, "you are not going to wind up with justice for all," said Lynn Marcus, a law professor at the University of Arizona and director of the school's Immigration Law Clinic.

In the San Diego courtroom, the defendants followed the debate in silence, listening to a translation through headphones. A few had their eyes closed, and one woman stifled a yawn.

At the end of the session, the judge wished the defendants "good luck" and they were escorted out.

That left him only a few minutes before another group of five men and two women was ushered in to start the process all over again.

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