***Please see updates at the bottom of this post***
Pro-immigrant activists chaining themselves to buses and a courthouse entrance today in Tucson forced a halt to Operation Streamline, a controversial federal program that prosecutes migrants arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol after they've entered the country illegally.
According to U.S. Marshal David Gonzales, early this morning two buses filled with migrants were en route to downtown Tucson's Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse when they were blocked by about a dozen activists.
The activists then chained themselves to bus wheels, using PVC pipe to form what's known as a "sleeping dragon," thus making it difficult for law enforcement to break through.
A second group of six demonstrators blocked a gated entrance to the rear of the courthouse, also by chaining themselves and employing PVC pipe. The activists issued a press release announcing the action with a link to livestreaming video from both locations at NotOneMoreDeportation.com, a site sponsored by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
As a result, Gonzales said he made the decision to cancel Streamline court for the day.
"We didn't know how long they'd be tied up," Gonzales said. "So it was more the logistics of processing these persons for court. It takes deputy marshals several hours to do that."
The marshal said the hearing for the detainees would be postponed till the next business day, which will be Tuesday, after the federal Columbus Day holiday.
"They're in custody," Gonzales stated of the migrants. "They're not going anywhere till they see a judge."
According to our colleagues at the Tucson Weekly, police detached the demonstrators from the buses and arrested them around 12:30 p.m. A few minutes later, the protesters at the court's back entrance, "decided to unchain themselves, save the PVC pipe for the next action and end the protest."
Gonzales said those blocking the buses may be hit with state felony charges, possibly obstructing a criminal prosecution. The six at the gate were taken into custody by Federal Protective Service, the force that guards federal buildings, and will likely be charged with misdemeanors, according to the marshal.
Operation Streamline processes 70 recently-arrested migrants a day in Tucson during a mass hearing before one magistrate. Men and women who haven't showered for days are led into court, handcuffed to their waists, with shackles on their feet.
Typically, the migrants plead guilty to one misdemeanor charge of illegal entry before being removed from the country.
Though they are represented by public defenders and appointed attorneys, the hearings have been condemned by immigration and civil rights activists as inhumane and a violation of due process.
The program also operates in Yuma, as well as cities in Texas, but the Streamline program in Tucson is the largest. If those convicted of a misdemeanor are apprehended again after reentering the country illegally, they could face felony charges and prison time.
I spoke with Pima County Legal Defender and pro-immigrant activist Isabel Garcia, who was on the scene, watching as activists were being cut loose from the buses, so that they could be arrested by the Tucson Police Department.
Garcia praised the young men and women who put their bodies on the line in this action, calling them "brave." I asked her what she thought the demonstration achieved.
"Well, it stopped Streamline for one day," she told me. "And brought national attention to this outrage."
She said the area was thick with Border Patrol Agents and police, and wondered why prosecuting migrants for a misdemeanor was deemed a matter of such importance during the ongoing government shutdown.
As you might expect, Gonzales disagreed with Garcia's assessment of the demonstration, claiming that the activists had only delayed the eventual release of the migrants on the Mexican side of the border and prolonged their captivity.
Asked what would happen if the demonstrators were back on Tuesday, he replied that "appropriate measures" would be taken to ensure that the court could function properly, even if that meant having armed escorts for the buses bearing migrants.
Today's demonstrations included members of several activist groups, such as Phoenix-based Puente, which is promising to "shut down" the local headquarters for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement near Central Avenue and McDowell Road, during an action to take place Monday.
Thing is, with Monday being a federal holiday, I'm not sure how busy the ICE office will be. However, as a detention facility, it should remain open, according to one former ICE agent I know.
Whether or not there will be buses rolling out is unclear. And after today's action, one would expect the ICE folks would make sure there's not much for the activists to shut down on Monday.
Update 3:11 p.m.: A spokesman for NDLON tells me that among those arrested were Puente activists Carlos Garcia and Sandra Castro, though neither Garcia nor Pistolera were participating in the actual civil disobedience.
Update 6:40 p.m.: I just spoke with defense attorney Ray Ybarra, who currently is in Tucson representing those arrested during today's protest.
He said that he believes Garcia and the others are charged with A.R.S. 13-2510, or hindering prosecution, a class 5 felony. At least, that's what Garcia is charged with and Ybarra believes all those arrested are charged with the same offense.
The class 5 felony would be, more specifically, 13-2512, hindering prosecution in the first degree, which reads, "A person commits hindering prosecution in the first degree if, with the intent to hinder the apprehension, prosecution, conviction or punishment of another for any felony, the person renders assistance to the other person."
Ybarra said 16 are in custody: 12 who were chained to the tires, and 4 who were just standing around, such as Garcia and Castro. He mentioned that all of them should go before a judge at 8 p.m.
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Additionally, Ybarra stated that he thought those arrested would ultimately prevail, as the statute did not really apply to his clients.
"I think they had to get creative," Ybarra said of the TPD.
Hopefully, I'll have more news to relay sometime after 8 p.m. tonight.
Update 10:01 p.m.: Good news. Ybarra just texted me to let me know that all defendants have been ordered released on their own recognizance. They should be out by midnight. According to Ybarra, they have been charged with the same class 5 felony discussed above.