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Border & Immigration

Federal Courts In San Diego Begin Group Hearings On Illegal Immigration

A courtroom sketch depicts a group of defendants charged with illegal immigration sitting in a federal courtroom, July 9, 2018.
Krentz Johnson
A courtroom sketch depicts a group of defendants charged with illegal immigration sitting in a federal courtroom, July 9, 2018.

Federal courts in San Diego on Monday began holding group hearings of immigrants charged with illegal entry into the United States, in an effort to close more of the thousands of low-level criminal cases that have piled up as a result of President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy.

The new proceedings, titled "Operation Streamline," have been used in other parts of the country since 2005, but Monday was the practice's first use in San Diego.

The proceedings began Monday afternoon, with around six to eight defendants sitting in the jury box at one time. Attorneys appointed to represent them had only a few hours in the morning to meet with their clients and assess their cases.

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Kasha Castillo, a supervising attorney with Federal Defenders of San Diego, said the arrival of Operation Streamline in San Diego was a "sad state of affairs."

"These proceedings are asking people to make very important, consequential decisions in a very short amount of time, and it's removing any process that I believe our Constitution envisions for people," she said.

Most of the defendants on Monday had no criminal record, Castillo said, and most had never been charged with illegal entry before. Among them were electricians and construction workers who said they entered the United States to work and send back money to their families in Mexico.

One defense attorney said the proceedings were "coercive" in nature, and that it was unfair that some defendants charged with the same crime under similar circumstances could get more a more individualized hearing. The majority of the defendants still ended up pleading guilty to the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry.

The guilty plea allows them to continue on to potential Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation proceedings, during which they are not entitled to legal representation. Castillo said the speedy group hearings are not well suited to individualized cases with nuance or mitigating circumstances.

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"They're saying 'yes' to things, but I'm not completely sure that (the defendants) understand what our process is or the consequences of pleading guilty," she said.

Operation Streamline is an effort by the Department of Justice to deal with the immense case backlog that has built up since Attorney General Jeff Sessions began ordering all cases of illegal entry into the U.S. be criminally prosecuted. Previous administrations have seldom prosecuted misdemeanor illegal entry, focusing instead on more dangerous or violent offenders.

Federal Courts In San Diego Begin Group Hearings On Illegal Immigration
Immigrants charged with illegal entry under President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy are now undergoing group hearings in an effort to deal with an immense case backlog. Federal public defenders say the process is unjust.