Criminalizing the Rio Grande Valley via Operation Streamline

By Nick Braune

I noticed that an activist friend of mine was quoted in an article, and the issues being raised seemed very important. I called Martha Sanchez at her office in Mission and asked for a quick interview. She is an organizer for La Uni*n del Pueblo Entero (LUPE).

Nick Braune: I noticed in the Rio Grande Guardian that you and Juanita Valdez-Cox, the LUPE director, have been meeting with police officials recently about enforcement practices. What is the problem you are trying to resolve?

Martha Sanchez: We met with the police chiefs of La Joya, Peñitas, and Palmview because we had received phone calls from our members with complaints of incidents where the police had stopped people for traffic violations and then called the Border Patrol. We are trying to let the police chiefs know that we are active advocates for our members. We also want to provide a dialogue between the police and members so that our members will not be afraid of them.

Braune: If I understand this right, you are hoping that the local police do not see their role as enforcing immigration laws. Is that a major issue?

Sanchez: We remind them of their real role to protect and serve, which is not to do the work of immigration. And we explain to them that when they act as immigration officers, they lose the confidence of the people, and these people will be less likely to call on the police when major crimes and emergencies happen.

Braune: What is the concern about driver’s licenses and the LUPE cards?

Sanchez: Many working people we advocate for don’t have an ID. We are offering our membership cards as an alternative; this way the police can identify the individual instead of simply calling the Border Patrol as some of the departments were doing.

Braune: I read in the Valley Morning Star today about Operation Streamline starting up near Brownsville, and I was shocked. The paper made it clear to me that it is a major Border Patrol sweep, and it is not just sending immigrants back home for being out of compliance in their paperwork. Operation Streamline intends to hit the undocumented with criminal charges and apparently intends to send many tens of thousands more to prison, for periods of up to six months, before deportation. And I loved Juanita Valdez-Cox’s comment in the Guardian that it would make the private jail companies rich. Any more comments on this Operation Streamline?

Sanchez: About Operation Streamline, we are asking this: Who is going to be making money on these jails? And we make the further point that we are all going to suffer with the shortage of workers. Who is going to pick the crops and who is going to clean the dishes in the restaurants? Who is going to take care of the children when we work outside of home? We hope that everybody knows we will have to pay more money for services if Operation Streamline takes hold. But the big issue is this: When the government slaps more and more people with criminal charges, this will make it impossible for these undocumented workers to ever have a chance of getting legitimate work papers, because they will then have a criminal record.

Curious about Operation Streamline?

An article in Harlingen’s Valley Morning Star on June 11 reports that the new policy intends “criminal prosecution of every migrant caught crossing the border without documentation,” and the article calls it a “zero-tolerance” deterrence policy. (I personally consider both “zero tolerance” enforcement and “deterrence” generally to be ethically problematic, but I’ll hold that thought.)

Although Operation Streamline has raised criticism in other places like Del Rio, the Valley Morning Star says that it is now hitting our Valley. “The Border Patrol rolled out the policy Monday along a four-mile stretch of Cameron County’s border with Mexico from Brownsville to Fort Brown.”

“Formerly, first time offenders were offered the option of voluntary deportation and were processed, put on a bus and sent back to Mexico within hours of their arrest.” But under Operation Streamline they will be “detained, sent to court, jailed for up to 180 days if found guilty, and then deported.”

In Del Rio where this policy was recently tried, one federal Public Defender, William Fry, was quoted as worrying about due process. “We get a case on Wednesday and the court expects us to be ready to go by Friday. That’s not enough time to adequately represent a client.”

I called Meredith Linsky, a Harlingen attorney practicing immigration defense law:

Braune: What did you think of the report in the Valley Morning Star?

Meredith Linsky: I am greatly dismayed by the expansion of Operation Streamline. Our country has clearly made a priority of criminalizing immigrants and their efforts to seek work, opportunity and a better future. What would this country look like if this had been done to our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents? There needs to be some recognition of the push and pull effects of immigration. If we want to stop illegal immigration, we should invest in Mexico and Central America and punish the employers who provide jobs to undocumented workers.

Braune: The Border Patrol’s streamlined, “zero tolerance,” deterrence policy seems like a mess-maker to me. Do you agree?

Linsky: Yes, expanding law enforcement efforts like Operation Streamline causes needless suffering, including painful separation of families, and it will cost the American taxpayers millions of dollars. Although illegal entry is a crime on the books, the people who enter illegally are usually economic migrants and asylum seekers who come to this country seeking hope, promise and protection. America needs to recognize its own roots and find a legal way to meet the needs of employers and citizens from impoverished nations.

NOTE: a breifer version of this article first appeared in the Mid-Valley Town Crier.–gm

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