LAS CRUCES, N.M. —
It’s a busy morning at the United States District Court in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“You’ll see that migrants will go in groups of six, eight people to the front of the judge,” said Johana Bencomo, director of community organizing with NM Comunidades en Acción y De Fe.
Escorted by U.S. marshalls, the immigrants are brought by bus to the federal courthouse. They are housed at different detention centers across the state including one in Luna County, Dona Ana County and Otero County.
Every day, groups of mostly men enter the federal courtroom, wearing jumpsuits, a headset and jail shoes. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, all of them stand shoulder to shoulder and answer questions from a judge through a translator.
“We’re seeing a lot more defendants from Central America and South America,” said Judge William P. Johnson, the chief United States district judge in the District of New Mexico.
Judges such as Johnson see dozens of cases every day, and most are immigration-related.
“We are only handling criminal cases,”said Judge Carmen Garza, the chief magistrate judge in the District of New Mexico. “This is not an immigration court. We can’t determine asylum.”
On a busy day, a judge will see about 100 individuals for their initial proceeding. About 85 percent to 90 percent of those people are here for immigration criminal cases.
“U.S. District Court would be where individuals are charged with violating federal law,” Johnson said.
What these judges mostly deal with are people who come to the U.S. illegally, which is a misdemeanor. Leaving and returning to the United States without permission after being deported once is considered a felony. Even if someone is coming to the U.S. to file an asylum claim by reaching U.S. soil, many are still being prosecuted.
“There’s zero tolerance policy, which means that everyone who comes in illegally is being prosecuted,” Garza said.
Garza said more people are being prosecuted because of policy the Trump administration has put into place.
One of the big differences between regular immigration courts and criminal immigration courts is that migrants have the right to a public defender. Most of them are also put in jail until their trial is over.
“My whole staff is stretched thin, not only the lawyers, but the whole staff cause every cases engendered paperwork, even if it’s a misdemeanor,” said Barbara Mandel, the Las Cruces branch supervisor for the Office of the Public Defender – District of New Mexico.
While judges see this process as fast and efficient, others believe it’s a flawed operation.
“Operation Streamline, really the name says it right? It’s supposed to streamline the process, and get as many migrants criminalized as possible,” Bencomo said.
On average, one trial takes anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes per person, which community Bencomo said is “erosion of due process.”
“It’s wrong, it has not worked, it’s absolutely immoral, and deterring migration by criminalizing it. It has not worked, when it is a push and pull factor for migrants nothing will deter them from migrating when it’s about survival,” Bencomo said.
It’s also a process that costs taxpayers.
“Being in criminal court doesn’t help anybody. I just see it as a money thing. I mean we have this beautiful courthouse, we have all of this staff in there,” former public defender Nia Rucker said. “All these things, that’s what it does, and we have to keep the machine going. We can do better as a society than putting people in jail.”
Garza said a common misconception about these proceedings is that people believe these migrants have committed an additional crime.
“I think the perception is that they have committed an additional crime, other than just coming into the country illegally,” Garza said.
Crossing the line that divides Mexico and the U.S. is the only crime most are accused of committing.
“They’re being charged for a crime, but they are not criminals. They are ordinary people like you and me, struggling to make a life for themselves and make a life for their children,” Mandel said.