Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

The ‘Streamline’ Program to Prosecute Immigrants is Ensnaring Kids by Mistake

‘Operation Streamline’ speeds up immigration prosecutions.

U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Diego, California.Mario Tama / Getty

On Aug. 1, a judge in the Southern District of California tossed aside a conviction of a minor, after the government found out that it had prosecuted and sentenced a Mexican citizen who was under 18 for a federal misdemeanor. Ordinarily, minors from Mexico arrested at the border are returned as soon as possible. Those from noncontiguous countries, like Honduras, are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, and those being charged with more serious crimes, like importing drugs, are handled in state courts, which have greater protections for minors. Federal defenders in the Southern District are now pointing to this botched case as the result of a program known as “Operation Streamline” which, since the beginning of July, has been expediting the prosecution of immigrants and allows them to be charged, plead guilty, and be sentenced in under half an hour.

Operation Streamline was expanded to the Southern District of California last month after the implementation of the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy in the spring, which aimed to prosecute as many people arrested at the border as possible. The court and federal jail system is now straining under the weight of a sixteenfold increase in prosecutions for misdemeanor illegal entry compared with last June. The Southern District created a special process in which people caught crossing the border would be held by Border Patrol until they arrived in court, where they would be offered the option to take a plea deal at their initial appearance. Through Operation Streamline, the court sought to relieve federal jails of the crush of people now being federally charged and accommodate the preferences of the executive branch.

On the evening of Saturday, July 21, Sabrina*, a Mexican citizen, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tecate, California, and was spotted by a Border Patrol agent just a quarter of a mile from the border. She was then questioned, arrested, and spent the rest of the weekend sleeping on the floor of a Border Patrol station filled with other people arrested at the border. She was given a thin blanket and was not allowed to bathe or brush her teeth.

That following Monday, she was brought to a garage of the federal building in downtown San Diego. Since the beginning of Operation Streamline, the garage has been converted to a makeshift meeting room for immigrants being charged with federal misdemeanors and their lawyers. Sabrina had a few minutes to discuss with her public defender whether she would want to take a speedy plea deal or remain in federal custody as she fights her case.

Federal public defenders have described to The Appeal the significant pressure that immigrants like Sabrina face to plead guilty in exchange for a time-served deal, which would allow them, theoretically, to be returned to Mexico in a matter of hours instead of waiting in detention for days or weeks as their criminal case plays out. Having a federal misdemeanor on your record, however, carries serious consequences for your possible future immigration status in the United States.

With the government and the courts trying to rush through prosecutions, defense attorneys are scrambling to make sure they are providing adequate representation for their clients—and that means doing things like confirming their client is as old as they say they are. That Monday, Sabrina had told her lawyer she was born on Feb. 13, 2000, which would mean she was 18. Federal defenders have told The Appeal that they aren’t certain why some defendants misrepresent their ages during interviews with them. However, with only a few hours before their criminal case reaches the sentencing phase, defenders are unable to call family members or governments to confirm the age of their clients, something they do whenever they think a client might be a minor.  

The court wasn’t able to process all of the guilty pleas that had been entered that day, so Sabrina pleaded guilty to illegal entry, a federal misdemeanor, on the morning of Wednesday, July 25, before Federal Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block.

As immigration custody processed Sabrina for her removal from the United States, she gave her real birthdate, which established her as younger than 18. But by then, the government had already charged and sentenced a minor.

On Aug. 1, federal defenders, along with prosecutors, asked Judge Block to stop the judgment, which stays the decision of of a court after a verdict has been reached because it is erroneous or likely to be reversed. The federal public defenders placed the blame for this invalid prosecution on Operation Streamline.

“This error is tied to ‘Streamline,’” Ben Davis, an attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, told Block in court. “There’s not enough time to interrogate the facts when there are so many pressures to plead guilty.”

Block granted the motion, but refused to assign blame to the expedited-prosecution program. “This is on the defense counsel during the interview process,” Block responded to Davis.

Davis explained that normally he would have time to investigate and get in touch with family members, but Block cut him off. “That’s another reason why you shouldn’t plead guilty,” he told Davis, saying he was not interested in commenting on Operation Streamline.

But the coercive nature of the process continues to put federal defenders in a difficult situation. The same day that Block charged and sentenced Sabrina for a federal misdemeanor, he also began refusing to accept guilty pleas unless defense lawyers stated their personal opinion that their clients weren’t being coerced to take plea deals. Attorneys from the Federal Defenders of San Diego refused to answer that question, citing a conflict of interest between what they believe—that Streamline is coercive by its very nature—and what’s best for their clients. The result has been that several clients were unable to plead guilty during their initial appearances despite their wish to do so.

“I have a duty of loyalty to the client and also I have a duty of candor to the court,” federal public defender Michelle Angeles told Block during an Operation Streamline hearing on July 25. “So that puts me in conflict with what my client wants and my duty to your honor to be honest about what my thoughts are answering the question.”

Block then told defense attorneys that he was worried about missing his train and that they could either say their client hadn’t been coerced to plead guilty or their client remain in custody.

“I cannot tell you that Operation Streamline is not coercive. I believe it is coercive. However, by saying this, you’ve now told my clients that it is my position and my concerns and my feelings that are keeping them in jail,” explained federal public defender Kimberly Trimble.

Later in the hearing, as federal defender Roxana Sandoval attempted to speak on behalf of her client before his sentencing, Block began to count down the seconds she had to do so:

THE COURT: The Court has to control its calendar. I’ll give you 60 seconds, 60 seconds.

SANDOVAL: I can’t limit the —

THE COURT: You’ve just wasted five of them.

SANDOVAL: — sorrow and grief that he has gone through because he —

THE COURT: You’ve just wasted 10 of ’em.

“Just for the record, I didn’t cut counsel off at 60 seconds,” Block noted after Sandoval finished speaking.

According to federal defenders, prosecutors are continuing to bring minors into federal courtrooms in their effort to prosecute as many immigrants as possible. On the afternoon of Aug. 3, for example, Judge Jill Burkhardt determined that a Mexican immigrant being prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry was a minor. Once the mistake was realized and the minor was brought into court to have their case dismissed, the courtroom was quickly cleared of press and observers to protect the child’s identity.  Judge Burkhardt then ordered the case sealed.

But Sabrina didn’t receive that type of treatment. By the time her judgment was arrested, she had already been deported.  


*Name changed to protect the identity of a minor.