With immigration legislation stalling in Congress and deportations on the rise, activists in Tucson joined those across the country who are launching their biggest and most coordinated attempts yet to bring attention to the issue.
More than 20 people were arrested or detained here Friday after they linked themselves together with plastic piping to block the federal courthouse parking lot and stopped two buses with up to 70 detainees headed to court to be criminally prosecuted for immigration offenses.
It was the first time the program called Operation Streamline was canceled because of an act of civil disobedience since it started in Texas in 2005, organizers said. The hearings will resume Tuesday.
The simultaneous protests that attracted about 80 people in Tucson had been in the planning for several weeks. They come out of the general frustrations those in the community striving for immigration-law overhaul reform say they feel dealing with law enforcement agencies and the number of people being deported.
“We want to use our bodies as shields and make a statement,” said Angie Loreto, a mother of two, while she sat cross-legged on the road and chained to one of the buses.
She, along with 11 others, remained chained roughly four hours until law enforcement personnel cut through the pipe-type cylinders called “dragon sleeves” they used to link themselves.
After having great expectations for a comprehensive immigration law to pass this year, the political stalemate in Washington, coupled with budget issues and the crisis in Syria, has pushed the issue lower as a political priority.
The Senate passed an immigration bill in June that includes a path to permanent legal status for the more than 11 million people estimated to live in the country illegally, but it also calls for the doubling of the Border Patrol and billions in border-enforcement technology — which some pro-immigration supporters say will further militarize the border.
The Republican House leadership has said it will not consider the Senate’s bill, and its support for a path to citizenship is slim.
Friday’s protest comes three days after dozens of activists showed up quickly when Tucson police called the Border Patrol on a driver and passenger who had been stopped for an unlighted license plate.
The protesters surrounded a Border Patrol vehicle with a human chain and blocked the street to prevent them from leaving. Eventually they were dispersed by police using pepper spray. Four people were taken into Border Patrol custody, including the driver, who received a civil traffic citation.
“As the deportation crisis deepens, people’s resolve and reaction to try to keep families together is going to escalate as well,” said Marisa Franco, the campaign organizer based in Phoenix for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
The group is part of the national #Not1More Deportation campaign calling on President Obama to use his authority to keep families together and provide immediate relief from deportations for those who could benefit from an eventual path to citizenship.
Hundreds will gather in Phoenix this weekend for a conference and a rally and march on Monday.
“We are coming to a point where we have to create a dilemma for friends and foes alike,” Franco said. “We see there’s power in coming together.”
SHOW OF FORCE
More than 100 law-enforcement personnel from the Tucson Police Department, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Border Patrol and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, among others, responded to the protests Friday.
At about 8 a.m., protesters slowed down two Border Patrol prisoner transport buses near the freeway downtown so others waiting on the side of the road could run toward them and chain themselves to the front tires. “There are people under your vehicle. Do not move,” read the signs they used to alert the bus drivers.
About 50 others stood on the side chanting and carrying signs calling for an end to Operation Streamline.
At the same time, six others chained themselves across the entrance to the federal court, blocking all traffic. After more than three hours, members of the Tucson Police Department and Arizona Department of Public Safety Device Removal Squads were able to remove the “dragon sleeves.”
Protesters used Operation Streamline to make their point because they said it’s inhumane and unjust.
The fast-track program was created to discourage unauthorized migration by giving prison sentences and a criminal record to those apprehended at the border.
Since it started in 2005, it has expanded to most sectors of the border, including Yuma and Tucson.
In Tucson, up to 70 people are processed every day, and most of them are charged with the misdemeanor of illegal entry and the felony of illegal re-entry. They plead down to the lesser charge, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison — all in one day.
Margo Cowan, a local attorney and longtime activist, said every minute the protesters spent chained to the fence or the bus was worth it.
“It calls attention to the criminalization of workers and to policies that separate families,” she said.
“I call on all contract attorneys to stop helping the government convict people; to recuse themselves,” she said. “If they did that, Streamline would come to its knees.”
The federal Public Defender’s Office in Tucson sends an attorney to represent Streamline clients once a week. Private attorneys represent the rest of the defendants.
She said the majority of unauthorized immigrants processed through Streamline come to work or to join their families.
As of fiscal 2012, more than 200,000 people were processed through Operation Streamline across the Southwest — about 45 percent of all immigration-related prosecutions, a Congressional Research Service report found. About 74,000 have been prosecuted through the program in Tucson since 2008.
But Raner Collins, chief U.S. judge for the Arizona District, said Streamline is not what it was when it started.
“For a lot of defendants, Streamline is a better option than going through the regular court process,” he said. They would spend much more time in prison if it weren’t for Streamline.
The program now focuses on prosecuting those charged with more serious crimes, he said.
A greater percentage of defendants are now charged with illegal re-entry as opposed to only illegal entry, but public information about Operation Streamline is limited. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office haven’t made that information available in the past.
Collins doesn’t know what’s next for the 70 detainees who were scheduled to be prosecuted through Streamline.
He said the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to cancel the procedure between 11 a.m. and noon, about three hours after they had been sitting inside the buses.
“It was becoming a health hazard for the defendants,” he said, and the attorneys hadn’t had time to meet with them.
Neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor the Border Patrol responded to requests for comment.