Skip to main content

I t only takes six questions to seal a person’s fate. Six questions asked in meticulous order forge the identity of a “criminal” forever. “Do you understand the rights afforded to you? Do you understand the consequences of your guilty plea? Are you making this plea voluntarily? Are you a citizen of the United States? It is my understanding that on this date you entered the United States near this place without being inspected at a U.S. port of entry. Is this true? How do you plead?”

For a few hours a day, five days a week, a federal district judge sits in the high chair under the seal of the United States and hands down punishment for crossing the border. Whereas most criminal courts are marked by arguments, deliberations, and testimony, Operation Streamline court processes are marked by expediency, efficiency, and simplicity. The program takes people and makes them criminals in the eyes of the law.

What I witnessed in the courts

On the day the Western Theological Seminary delegation visited the Tucson Federal Court, over 70 people were processed in 140 minutes. On average, each captured person received less than two minutes of attention before the judge. 

Related: The impact of these quick decisions can be devastating—and not just for the detainees. Just ask Jael. Her husband was detained by immigration just weeks after their wedding. Listen to her story here.

By the time those who are to be sentenced arrive in front of the judge, they have been in detention for up to three days. They are shackled and handcuffed, lack shoelaces, and are wearing the same clothes in which they crossed the border. They have had hardly any time to meet with a lawyer, sometimes as little as ten minutes. Nearly all have pleaded guilty and signed a plea bargain before entering the courtroom. 

The mood in the courtroom is confusing. There are those who are shackled who seem content with their situation. Some even crack jokes with their lawyers. Still, others are dejected. It would seem like the weight of the title “criminal” hangs heavier than the chains that bind them. The two U.S. Marshals that guard the courtroom look like children waiting to enter a dentist office. They know they have to be there, but they want to be anywhere else. The three Spanish-language interpreters are cold. They translate every word with robotic precision. The judge is the most fascinating. She questions the accused with the tender voice of a mother, yet hands down sentences and deportations like Halloween candy. She is direct, she is concise, and she is bound by the law. 

The justice system in the United States is often idealized as being fair. But, when the United States justice system enforces Operation Streamline, we echo the legal system of totalitarian regimes. On the surface, it seems like everything is running like a well-oiled machine. The letter of the law is being followed. These people crossed the border illegally and are being punished for it. That seems logical, even just. Yet, after hearing stories from migrants—learning about the cartels and seeing the way migrants are expected to enter the United States legally—it becomes obvious that Operation Streamline lacks a crucial part of the picture of border crossing. There is no place for storytelling. 

The role of story

The church values storytelling. So does Scripture. And many people we encountered in the Tucson Federal Court carry profound stories that shed light on the bigger picture of border crossing. Yet, Operation Streamline removes this element, creating a black and white picture. It is easy to see Operation Streamline as fair and believe justice is being served when all that is heard is the crime committed by the individual. But, the reality is we do not know how many of the 71 people who pleaded guilty were forced into crossing, or crossed out of desperation, or had exhausted every legal option afforded to them to enter legally. The system in the courts values expediency over story, legalism over compassion. It is Pharisaic and one dimensional. 

Although the system rejects story as evidence to be considered before judgment, Scripture offers stories that put Operation Streamline in perspective. This system echoes two gospel stories. The first is found in Mark 2. Jesus is found picking grain on the Sabbath. When he is questioned by the religious judges on the legality of such an act, Jesus quips, “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”

One of Jesus’s points in this response is to say that laws are meant to safeguard people, not to bind people to a particular interpretation of legalism. In this story, Jesus is a religious criminal. He breaks the religious laws. It is cut and dry. Yet, Jesus opens an understanding into the logic of legalism. When laws are used to trap people, or are used as a tool of ignorance, they become unjust. I wonder if Jesus would ask, “Are all people who hop the wall criminals?”

The second story comes at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus is presented before Pilate, the ruling judge of the land. The religious body has made Jesus into a criminal and brought him before the court for questioning. It only takes six questions to seal a person’s fate. Pilate asks Jesus six legal questions: what his citizenship is, whether he understands the nature of his crime, whether he knows the consequences of his plea, and if he knows the penalty for being a criminal. For the Roman Empire, it was cut and dry. Jesus had committed a crime, and he must be punished. There was little room for argument. 

What understanding comes from this is the nature of the empire. The empire did not know Jesus’s story. Likewise, the court does not know the migrant’s story. The empire was convinced it was in the right because it had the authority to establish rules of law. Today, the court is convinced it has authority because it interprets the law.

Prioritizing people—and the image of God—over politics

I carry many stories from my experience at the border. With those stories comes power. To faithfully recount my experience, I will need to know what my ministry setting understands about migration and politics surrounding immigration.

My current ministry would most likely identify as politically moderate to liberal. Yet, my experiences at the border show that political ideology does not translate into cultural awareness. I need to understand the assumptions and beliefs my ministry holds. Do they think all migrants are criminals? Do they believe there are abundant ways to enter the country legally? Do they know the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee?

Regardless of political affiliation, many in my ministry context would equate law with safety. The tougher the law, the safer we are. And, in much of the rhetoric around those who break the law, there are many who would regard criminals as less than human. Or, if human, no longer made in the image of God. Therefore, it may be difficult to see anything about Operation Streamline as wrong. Even though many in my ministry setting would value social justice, they would value security first.

So, in telling the stories of migrants who would hypothetically make it into Operation Streamline, I anticipate a response that would assume the criminality of the migrant over the humanity. The same black-and-white thinking employed by the justice system is often played out in the church. To which I say, are there criminals among those in Operation Streamline who are dangerous? Of course there are. Yet, there are those whose lives are just as complex as ours, even more so. I hope to make it known that border crossing is a gray issue, and Operation Streamline is a black-and-white solution. It works if all you want is to send people away quickly. It does not work if you value dignity. 

A realization and a reevaluation

Observing Operation Streamline has caused me to reevaluate my beliefs about law and judicial processes. I do not know the background of most of my peers on the trip. I, for one, originally wanted to go into law. I studied political science for a year in college and have taken many classes on the judicial process and history of governance in the United States. And, after watching the Operation Streamline process at the Tucson Federal Court, I was having trouble articulating my feelings. Was I angry? Partially, but that was not dominating me. Was I sad? It is hard not to be sad watching that, but again, that was not the dominant feeling. It took me many days to figure it out, but I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to be an American. I am embarrassed by my idolization of the judicial process. I was embarrassed at my definition of justice. Witnessing Streamline showed me that I lack a full picture of God’s justice, substituting American justice instead.

So, when I share my witness with my ministry context and tell the stories I carry now, I want it understood that these are not political pawns. Nor are they subhuman law breakers. These are people. They are sons and daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children of God. These people have stories, and they have been given breath and life from the same God who gave me breath and life.

I want it understood that I, and those like me, carry a privilege in that we can observe the American legal system as something that is tipped toward us. Operation Streamline is an example of a broken system gilded to look like justice being done. I want it to be understood that migration is not black and white.

In bearing witness to the stories from the border, I want to be a voice of challenge to the church. I challenge the church to go deeper. I challenge the church to exegete the American legal system that sends 71 people to prison or deportation in under two hours, five days a week. Exegete the system to find the deeper fear Streamline plays into and root it out. Finally, I challenge the church to define justice biblically, because criminals, while they may be momentarily outside the law, are people first. And, laws are made for people, not people for laws.