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The Ordeal of Pérez Méndez

by TODD MILLER

It’s true, Pérez Méndez doesn’t look 21. He has the soft facial features of a 14 year old child or younger, which make the interaction between him and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Marshall in the Tucson federal courthouse even more painful to watch. Pérez Méndez’s crime occurred four days before when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended him in the Arizona desert. And now he is in the courthouse—shackled on his wrist, chained around his waist, shackled on his ankles—along with 60 other people convicted for “illegal entry” into the United States.

The judge has singled Pérez Méndez out, and unlike the others who approached her in groups of five, this kid, obviously frightened, is the last one to shuffle up to the stand. He does it alone.

The judge explains to him that she has singled him out because “I don’t believe you are 21. We don’t lie in this court. That isn’t how we proceed.”

Pérez Méndez doesn’t say anything.

“Do you have any relatives? Parents? Brothers? Cousins travelling with you?”

“No,” he says. The judge looks at him suspiciously, trying to discover, I imagine, the motivation for his alleged lie.

The judge tells him that she has no other choice but to put him under oath. She explains to him what that means—if he were to lie, then it would be perjury. Perjury is a criminal offense carrying prison time. “Is that what you want?”

Up to this point the Operation Streamline proceedings—a zero-tolerance border enforcement program that criminally charges all people who cross the border without the correct papers—has been normal. On this day in mid-March, 58 men and two women, all with brown skin that has been reddened after days of walking in the Arizona sun, have already approached the judge in groups of five with their heads bowed submissively, weighed down by the shackles and chains. Some will go to prison and some will be deported, all for crossing the international border without authorization. They are wearing the same clothing dirtied and damaged by the desert. On the other side of the “border line” that cuts through the spacious courthouse are the employees of the much whiter judicial apparatus—well-dressed in pressed shirts, dress pants, and high-heels—sitting at or around tables, some milling about or checking their smart phones.

Many authors have written good, informative, and critical pieces about Operation Streamline, and I don’t intend to repeat that here. What I want to underscore is that this program, which happens every day of the week in more and more places along the 2,000-mile U.S. southern border is a significant part of the new Border Patrol 2012-2016 strategy unveiled on May 8. Operation Streamline has been in existence since 2005, running in the Tucson sector since 2008, and now will be expanded as part of the Consequence Delivery System of the new strategy. In many “targeted areas” along the border undocumented migrants will no longer be voluntarily returned after apprehension, they will now face a judge.

Furthermore, these types of multi-agency efforts (Streamline includes the U.S. Magistrate, Federal Judiciary, U.S. Attorney’s office, and the U.S. Marshal’s service among others) are paramount to the Border Patrol’s quest to efficiently enact “layers,” or more boundaries of all shapes, sizes, and purposes, well past the actual international divide.

Border Patrol chief Mike Fisher describes the strategy as a “multi-layered, risk-based approach” to “enhance the security of the border,” by more efficiently using the resources and personnel at the agencies disposal particularly after the massive post 9/11 build-up.

“This layered approach . . .” Fisher explains, “extends our zone of security outward, ensuring that our physical border is not the first or last line of defense, but one of many.”

Operation Streamline is just one example of this expanding Border Patrolization of federal, state, and local agencies. It is the judicial equivalent of the courtroom border in the new strategy. And, as displayed so poignantly through Judge Marshall’s interaction with Pérez Méndez, the judge becomes one of the many, many anointed border guards.

Keeping to its post 9/11 line of thinking, the Border Patrol says that these sorts of multi-agency “targeted enforcement programs” like Streamline will “prevent and disrupt terrorist and transnational threats.”

This seems almost silly watching Pérez Méndez attempt to take the oath. He has to raise his right hand, but can barely do it because it is shackled and chained to his left hand. So he also has to raise his left hand almost up to his chin to be able to lift up his right. This is sufficient for the judge, but incomplete because his right hand is never completely raised.

After the oath, the judge asks, “Do you want to consult your lawyer?”

His lawyer, referred by the judge as “Washington,” is a tall man who towers over Pérez Méndez. They talk for a few minutes off to the side.

Washington then approaches the stand again and tells the judge, “My client has maintained since the get-go that he is 21 years old. His birth certificate gives him a birthday in 1991.”

“It could be fake,” the judge says abruptly.

“Yes,” Washington says almost reluctantly, “he has the mannerisms and look of a 14-15 year old . . .” It’s true. Pérez Méndez looks like a child. He looks like a kid who should be starting high school, not shackled in front of a judge.

The judge looks at Pérez Méndez, now under oath:

“How old are you?”

The following pause is loud. To the right side of the judge sits the interpreter, who speaks her question into a microphone on his headset. Pérez Méndez’s headphones, with its curving band under his chin, almost looks like another fixture of the detainment apparatus, chaining down his ears.

“Twenty-one years.”

The judge looks up to the ceiling as if she were trying to see the sky.

“Where are you from?” she asks with a hint of exasperation.

“Chiapas.”

“How far is Chiapas?”

“Three days.”

“Did you walk?” the judge asks, but it is unclear if she means from the border or from Chiapas.

“Yes.”

A bald, stocky man dressed in a clean-pressed shirt and tie stands up and says “I’m sorry, but the U.S. government does not believe that he is 21 years old.”

The judge says that she both applauds and agrees with the U.S. government.

Then, surprisingly, she drops the charges against Pérez Méndez. But she isn’t finished.

“Three days. . .” she says, dwelling on the number, “I imagine it was to find a job?”

The new question seems to startle Pérez Méndez. His story could be one of many. If he is a child, like the judge suspects, he might be trying to unite with state-side family members like thousands of other children.

“There aren’t as many jobs as there used to be,” Judge Marshall says, once you get back there,” she says implying Chiapas, “don’t come back.”

“And those that hire illegal aliens are no longer going to do so,” Marshall continues, “they will get charged,” as if the Department of Homeland Security were busting employers left and right throughout the country.

Pérez Méndez stands there nodding to everything that she says and the judge is just getting to her punchline:

“If you do it again you will be charged. And do you know what will happen to a person who looks like you in prison?”

She pauses.

“They beat people who look like you in prison. That should scare you. Do you understand that?”

Pérez Méndez only nods to what is the implied threat of physical violence, a vivid example of the Border Patrol’s new strategy.

Todd Miller writes for NACLA, where this article also appeared.