“WELCOME TO THE INSANITY,” says the secretary for Judge Dennis Green, rolling her eyes in the direction of the federal courtroom in Del Rio where the morning session is set to begin. Inside, it is immediately clear what she means: Jammed like tinned herring into every available space are roughly ninety illegal immigrants. They are dark-skinned, mostly in their twenties, and overwhelmingly male. They wear cheap clothes and expressions that range from confusion to stony neutrality. They smell of stale sweat. When Judge Green enters, the prisoners all stand, and when he motions for them to sit, they do so in unison, which causes the manacles on their wrists, ankles, and waists to make a loud metallic clang.
One by one, prisoners shuffle glumly forward to face the judge. Most plead guilty through a translator, and then their court-appointed lawyers read aloud brief accounts of their lives. These amount to profiles, in miniature, of the humanity that is pouring across our international border. One man who was caught crossing the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass is 21 years old, married, and has a 17-month-old daughter. He was making only $7 a day in El Salvador and was traveling to New York City, where he had hoped to make money to care for his sick parents. A 23-year-old man from Guatemala is single, has a ninth-grade education, and was making $5 a day working in the fields. He is simply looking for a better life. Another Salvadoran is a trained mechanic who was bound for North Carolina, hoping to save enough money to return home and build a house. Three Mexicans have criminal records in this country, and another prisoner is said to be a member of a violent gang, though he claims to have quit. There are ranch hands, chauffeurs, law students, chicken processors, roofers, and landscapers. When the judge asks if they want to say anything on their behalf, they all apologize for having broken U.S. law.
They have been brought to Del Rio to be charged with illegal entry into the United States, and if they seem confused, they have good reason. Until late last year, most of the illegal aliens who were apprehended were either summarily returned to Mexico or, if they were citizens of other countries ( OTMs, or “other than Mexicans”), given a notice to appear in court at a later date and set free. The latter policy was known, usually pejoratively, as “catch and release.” Crossing the border was regarded by many as a game, a formality, or a joke, especially by the OTMs. But now everything has changed: No one is being released. The people in the courtroom have been detained, incarcerated in county jails, shackled, and transported on prison buses to their arraignment on criminal charges. Later that day, they will be sentenced to between 30 and 180 days in jail, after which they will be put on a plane or a bus, deported, and informed that if they try to enter the United States illegally again, they may be charged with a felony.
They couldn’t have known it at the time, but they’d all had the misfortune to cross the Rio Grande at what is now ground zero in the government’s all-new, souped-up, no-quarter-given war on illegal immigration. Since December 12, the Border Patrol has quietly put into place a program known as Operation Streamline II along a fifty-mile section of border roughly bound by Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Its mission is simple and without precedent: to prosecute and jail all illegal border crossers (except parents with children) and then ship them back to their country of origin. It is the most extreme experiment thus far in Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff’s wildly ambitious plan to secure the border in the next few years, and as millions of Americans hit the streets to protest proposed immigration laws, it is being closely watched in Washington. Nothing as