Border visit: SVCF program officer attends mass deportation hearing

Anne Im, Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s immigration program officer, recently visited the United States/Mexico border with an emergency delegation organized by Hispanics in Philanthropy. Below, she shares reflections and learnings from the trip.

I traveled to the border with a delegation of about 50 philanthropic funders organized by Hispanics in Philanthropy in early August. The members of our group were primarily from California, with some attending from other states and countries. The delegation separated into three groups for site visits, and I went to a federal courthouse in San Diego to witness Operation Streamline proceedings. A second group visited the Otay Mesa Detention Center, and the third group travelled to two shelters in Tijuana serving migrants, Casa del Migrante and Instituto Madre Asunta.

Anne Im
Anne Im, left, immigration program officer at SVCF, met Sister Norma of the Catholic Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley, during a recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego to learn first-hand about deportation hearings and detention facilities.

As part of our courthouse visit, we heard the history of Operation Streamline, which began in 2005, and has been used to criminally prosecute individuals involved in all unlawful border crossings. The operation essentially enables ongoing, mass deportation hearings. In the past, San Diego advocates including community-based organizations, the judiciary, and law enforcement officials succeeded in preventing its implementation, but as of this July, it is operating in San Diego, in addition to other border states.

My group almost didn’t make it into the courthouse, as U.S. Marshals questioned our purpose for visiting and asked if anyone in the courthouse knew we were coming. Our leaders responded that it was a public hearing and that if there were seats, we could observe. The marshals made us wait and told us that the 1:30 p.m. hearing we had planned to attend was not happening. After assuring them we still wanted to go in, we were told the hearing had already taken place that morning. Again, we told them we still wanted to go in even if the hearing had concluded. They finally let us in and we learned that the hearing was, in fact, happening as planned at 1:30 p.m.

In the first three weeks of its implementation, there have been approximately 50 defendants at each Operation Streamline hearing, our delegation was told. On the Tuesday I was in San Diego, there were only nine defendants in court. I don’t think this was coincidental. Most of the defendants appeared to be teenage boys, with the exception of one older woman. All had headphones on for language interpretation.

A federal public defender described to us what migrants might experience during this process after arriving on a Friday night. They would spend the night in a Customs and Border Patrol station. In detention they are provided no opportunity for a shower or hygiene, and only given a daily burrito, cookies and juice, along with a thin Mylar blanket. Because of overcrowding, they often have to take turns sleeping, as there is not enough room to lie down on the ground. They call these facilities “hieleras” (Spanish for icebox or cooler) because they are like freezers. In these cases, most of the migrants at their first appearance in court are read their rights, need to decide whether to seek bond, and plead guilty or not guilty. I saw eight attorneys all standing together to defend their clients. It felt scattered and was difficult to tell who was representing who.

All of the immigrants we saw in court that day pleaded guilty, likely as their way to quickly get out of Customs and Border Patrol detention. They will be released from detention, but now have criminal records that will impact their futures and their ability to return to the U.S.

It was difficult to witness this mass deportation hearing and to see this perversion of justice within our courts. In some respects, it was good to see that the migrants had legal representation – which is not a requirement in immigration court – but the process hardly felt just.

One shining light on this trip was Sister Norma from the Catholic Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley, who I met on our first day in San Diego. She joined us on our delegation and also taught us about her work with migrants, hundreds of whom arrive at the diocese’s doors each day in McAllen, Texas, needing help. She has been at the front lines of this work, providing referrals, social services and support to these families. She is also giving them cell phones so that she can track them after they leave McAllen and move to other parts of the U.S.

Silicon Valley Community Foundation provided a grant to Catholic Charities Santa Clara County so their staff can travel to McAllen and assist Sister Norma and her team.

On the last day of the delegation’s trip, we spent time in strategy sessions. We discussed how we can help change the narrative, build infrastructure to support change, activate the legal and educational community and engage in long-term movement building. It was difficult to witness what I feel are injustices in our current immigration system, but I was inspired by connecting with many other funders who share a commitment to change, and by seeing that many community-based organizations in San Diego and in other parts of the U.S. are fighting for justice. 

There’s much more work ahead.