San Diego Region Still Suffering Effects of Trump Administration’s Flawed, Inhumane Immigration Policies

ACLU Volunteers Have Helped Document the Cruel and Unjust Treatment of Migrants

By Edward Sifuentes

SAN DIEGO – Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired by President Trump shortly after the midterm elections in November, but the effects of Sessions’ inhumane immigration policies are still being felt in communities all along the border, especially in San Diego.

Last year, Sessions stood in Border Field State Park and announced the administration’s “Zero Tolerance,” a policy of criminally prosecuting every adult caught entering the United States without permission. This is the deeply flawed policy that led to the federal government’s widely condemned practice of forcibly separating migrant children (who cannot be tried criminally) from their parents.

Under Zero Tolerance, the intensified criminalization of migrants has predictably resulted in a dramatic increase in prosecutions of misdemeanor offenses, severely straining limited court and government resources that could be better used to pursue critical human and drug smuggling cartel investigations.

A ProPublica investigation found the number of human smuggling cases started by ICE dropped from 3,920 to 1,671 during the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration – a decline of nearly 60 percent.

Conversely, the number of illegal entry prosecutions brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California in San Diego skyrocketed from 50 cases a month to 150 cases a week, according to a KQED report – a whopping 1,200 percent increase.

To speed up proceedings, in July 2018 Session’s Department of Justice (“DOJ”) expanded “Operation Streamline” – a mass prosecution tactic in effect in other border states for years – to California.

Under Streamline, migrant defendants (many with no prior criminal record) are prosecuted in groups of a dozen or more. In short, Streamline facilitates a separate system of blatantly unequal justice for immigrants.

When the mass prosecutions began in San Diego last summer, the ACLU deployed trained volunteers to attend court hearings to document Operation Streamline’s unjust and atrocious effects. Their notes paint a picture of a justice system gone amok – one that callously and intentionally denies to migrant defendants any semblance of due process and a fair day in court.

One observer documented a hearing for seven people at once, including a woman who was seven months pregnant, an 18-year-old young man with no criminal record and a man who entered the country to exercise his human and legal right to seek asylum.

The entire hearing lasted less than 12 minutes.

The volunteers noted objection after objection made by defense attorneys, from challenging the use of leg restraints on defendants charged with misdemeanor offenses, to deplorable conditions in the detention facilities, to lack of adequate access to legal counsel.

In interviews conducted by ACLU staff, migrants prosecuted under Operation Streamline complained of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in Border Patrol detention facilities in both San Diego and Imperial counties. Many detainees reported that for days, their meals consisted only of a cold, unappetizing burrito, some cookies and a small cup of juice.

A 27-year-old man from Mexico said officials took away his coat forcing him to sleep on the floor with nothing but a mylar blanket under very cold conditions. The cell was crowded with 18 other people.

The Federal Defenders of San Diego, criminal defense attorneys, and immigrant and civil rights organizations have been fighting back against Zero Tolerance and Operation Streamline. In October, the Bail Project, a national nonprofit organization that pays bail for low-income defendants, began providing bail money to help release migrants.

Freed from detention, migrants are better able to fight their cases and are less likely to plead guilty immediately just to get out of custody.

The coercive effects of pre-trial confinement are well documented and apply equally, if not more so, to people being warehoused in Border Patrol “hieleras” or iceboxes as some migrants call the detention facilities because of the cold conditions.

As one 24-year-old Mexican man told ACLU staffers during an interview in Tijuana: After four days in a Border Patrol facility, “I felt tired and all I could think about was getting out.”

Attorney General Sessions may be gone, but the legacy of injustice of the DOJ’s Zero Tolerance and Operation Streamline policies still reverberate in the San Diego region and other communities on the nation’s southern border. His successor, William Barr, is not likely to do much better.

In an OpEd published in The Washington Post on Nov. 7, 2018, Barr praised his predecessor, saying Sessions “attacked the rampant illegality that riddled our immigration system, breaking the record for prosecution of illegal-entry cases and increasing by 38 percent the prosecution of deported immigrants who reentered the country illegally.”

Barr made no mention of how implementation of these policies has exacerbated fear and suffering and harmed thousands of migrant families. He was silent on the damage these policies have done to our nation’s credibility as defender of human rights on the global stage.

As evidenced by the reports of ACLU court watchers and interviews of migrants held in Border Patrol detention facilities, the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance and Operation Streamline policies created a legal and humanitarian disaster and are the only crisis effecting the border region.

We must demand an end to these cruel and misguided policies. We must demand a safe, secure border and, just as important, a humane and compassionate immigration system.

Edward Sifuentes is the Senior Media & Communications Strategist for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.