A separate fast-track court designed to quickly process the steady stream of misdemeanor border-crossing cases under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy rolled out Monday in San Diego in a hearing that was punctuated by moments of confusion, tension and passionate objection.
A total of 41 unauthorized immigrants who were arrested over the weekend were seen during the initial hearing. But this was no ordinary arraignment.
More than half of the defendants — all of whom were dressed in the same clothes they were arrested in over the weekend — took the government’s offer to plead guilty and be sentenced immediately. Most received sentences of time served and will be quickly remanded to immigration custody to be deported.
Others, many with asylum claims, asked to be released on bond and to take more time to think about the government’s plea offer. They were ordered to come back to court Friday.
The fast-track program is one way San Diego’s federal court has decided to adjudicate the influx of border-crossing cases under the government’s “zero tolerance” policy, which went into effect in May. The policy to criminally prosecute all illegal border entry cases operates under the notion that a criminal conviction serves as a stronger deterrent than just a civil deportation order.
But the sudden increase in criminal defendants has stretched the justice system thin.
In some instances, arraignment hearing calendars have been so stacked that court has gone into the evenings, including until 10 p.m. one recent Monday.
A committee of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys has been meeting over the last several weeks to discuss solutions to the increased caseload, including how to implement a fast-track court.
The federal bench has gone ahead despite strong objections by the defense bar that criticize such programs as “assembly line justice” that violate due process rights.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office defended the misdemeanor immigration court, saying the office “is committed to securing the border and enforcing criminal immigration laws in a way that respects due process and the dignity of all involved.”
The fast-track court is being modeled after others that have operated along the Southwest border for the last several years under the name Operation Streamline.
One of those is in Tucson, where a few San Diego attorneys and at least one judge visited recently to observe procedures and suggest what parts to take back.
The end result seems to be a hybrid approach — giving defendants the option to plead guilty and be sentenced in the same day, as in Tucson, while also building in an additional four days for those who need more time to decide how to proceed.
Still, little details about how this court would work have been released publicly, and going into Monday’s hearing, many in attendance were unsure how it would all unfold.
The hearing drew a packed gallery of local and national media, as well as a few curious attorneys and at least one judge who wanted to observe the roll out.
The process started around 9 a.m., when about a dozen appointed defense attorneys arrived at a courthouse holding area and set up at tables to begin interviewing clients, some of whom sat down in tears.
Each attorney was assigned three to four defendants.
They reviewed clients’ circumstances of arrest, their criminal and immigration backgrounds and asked about their personal lives. They then explained the government’s offer to plead guilty right away and get sentenced, advised them of the pros and cons and asked how they wanted to proceed.
The afternoon hearing, presided over by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jill Burkhardt, got off to a late start. The sound of chains dropping to the floor could be heard as the defendants were unshackled before being led into the courtroom.
The judge took the defendants in groups of about six to eight, with the first few groups ready to plead guilty.
Almost immediately, defense attorneys began to put their objections to the process on the record — objecting to violations of their clients’ due process, to their shackling during client-attorney interviews, to the conditions they were kept in at Border Patrol stations this weekend, and to what they described as the “coercive” nature of the program.
The judge listened to the objections but denied motions to dismiss any cases. She ran the courtroom sternly, and several times she brusquely chastised defense attorneys against repeating objections that had already been raised.
When it was time to take their pleas, she asked each defendant a version of the same question: “On July 6, did you walk from Mexico into the United States?”
“Yes,” each replied.
“Did you pick a place to cross to try to avoid immigration officers?” she continued.
“Yes,” they answered.
“Were you a citizen of the United States?”
Then the judge gave each defendant a chance to speak before sentencing. Some took her up on the opportunity, while others let their attorneys speak for them. What unfolded were stories of economic desperation that led many to come to the U.S.
One man told the judge he’d been living in the U.S. for 18 years as “a good citizen without any problem.”
“My family is in Mexico. I have to go back and forth more often. My children need me. I will no longer be able to send them money. I need to go back home soon,” he said.
The judge said he would be going home soon, with a sentence of time served.
The defendants also included a 30-year-old man from Jalisco who crossed with a group, his attorney explained. Their guide told them to walk farther ahead without him, that another guide would meet them. No one ever showed up. The group spent 12 hours walking with no food or water. They finally contacted a U.S. citizen in Barrett Junction, asking for help.
A few defendants were sentenced to terms of 30 or 60 days due to their prior crossing records and criminal history.
One of those defendants was a 47-year-old man from Sinaloa, Mexico, who said he was a widowed father of six and he needed to work to support them. “I’m the one who takes care of the kids and fights for them,” he explained, his voice breaking.
The judge followed the prosecutor’s 30-day sentence recommendation for him, but reluctantly, pointing to a prior DUI arrest and an illegal entry conviction from February.
Another man also was back in court after being sentenced only a few weeks ago for illegal entry.
“You basically just turned around and came back in here,” the judge admonished the man.
The second half of the hearing was reserved for defendants who didn’t want to plead guilty right away but asked to be released on bond.
The judge set bond for them, in the $1,000 to $2,500 range, despite the fact that most, if not all, would go right into immigration detention upon release. Their lawyers said that because the bond was higher than their clients could pay, they wanted to plead guilty instead.
The request set off a tense round of arguments as the judge insisted that the guilty pleas were done for the day. The lawyers countered that they didn’t know it was an either-or proposition that day.
“No one explained to us what was expected of the attorneys,” defense attorney Kimberly Trimble argued to the judge.
The judge relented and allowed about eight additional people to plead guilty.
Court wrapped at 5:45 p.m.
The day’s docket of 41 cases was considered light for a Monday, leaving unclear what this court will look like with more defendants.
An additional magistrate judge has been placed on rotation to handle the misdemeanor immigration cases, the U.S. attorney’s office said.