LAS CRUCES — A group of local activists, spiritual leaders and public officials came out in force before sunrise on Thursday to denounce the fast-track prosecution of undocumented immigrants within the federal criminal court system.
Dozens of people gathered outside the federal courthouse in downtown Las Cruces before 7 a.m. as part of an early morning protest against Operation Streamline — an initiative enacted in 2005 that prosecutes most border-crossers as criminals in large groups at a rapid pace.
NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé, a faith-based nonprofit, organized the protest in a coordinated effort to disrupt the court’s immigration proceedings on Thursday, and to call attention to what organizers described as the “criminalizing of the American Dream.”
Standing side-by-side on portions of Church and Campo streets, protesters had hoped to block buses shuttling undocumented immigrants from entering the courthouse.
Those who blocked the Church Street entryway included state Reps. Angelica Rubio and Bill McCamley, City Councilor Yvonne Flores and Father Tom Smith of Holy Cross Retreat Center, which has opened its doors to immigrants facing deportation.
But the buses had arrived earlier than expected, according to organizers.
CAFé issued a news release Wednesday and had created a Facebook event earlier in the week announcing the planned protest.
“This machine is so well-oiled that today they decided to get here much earlier than they usually do,” Johana Becomo, director of organizing for NM CAFé, told the Sun-News.
“This morning when we arrived at 6:30, the buses were already here,” Becomo said, “which all that tells us is how serious this machine is about criminalizing people.”
Still, Becomo and dozens of other protesters stood their ground and remained in place until about 8 a.m., chanting and speaking out against Operation Streamline, which operates in three border states, including in New Mexico.
Part of a strategy to bolster consequences for people who break immigration laws, Operation Streamline funnels men and women who have illegally crossed into the U.S. directly into the federal criminal court system, rather than the civil immigration system.
Defendants, wearing chains and shackles, are then sent to court in large groups to answer to their charges, which may include misdemeanor entry or felony re-entry. After entering pleas, they are often sentenced on the spot. The penalties for illegal entry into the United States include prison sentences that range from six months to 20 years, as well as deportation.
“I believe that the rights of some of the people who are undocumented are being avoided,” Smith said. “They’re trying to put them together all in one group and call them criminals, rather looking at the individual situations.”
Last year, federal courts in New Mexico saw a high volume of criminal caseloads for immigration offenses.
In a 12-month period ending on March 31, 2017, almost 3,300 defendants — a total of 3,295 — were charged in New Mexico with improper re-entry, far outpacing Arizona and slighting beating West Texas, according to federal judicial statistics.
Still, the New Mexico figure represented an 11 percent decrease in total criminal immigration filings from 2016. Nationwide, there was an overall 2 percent decrease in such filings last year.
“I would encourage anyone to just go and what the (court) process,” said Cristan Biad Ismond, who sits on the governing board for NM CAFé. “It is sneaky — it feels dirty.”
“Our main point is to let people know that this is happening in our community,” she added. “We’re not going to be able to stop it — we can interrupt it, we can slow it down for a minute — we don’t expect to change anything. But we do want Las Cruces to know that here they are.”
Thursday’s protest also was held in support of young immigrants known as Dreamers, whose fate has been in limbo since the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Two DACA recipients spoke during the demonstration and expressed gratitude to those who had gathered to support them.
“I put so much effort into my ‘future’,” a Dreamer named Brenda told the crowd. “I put in quotations marks because, at this point, I don’t think it’s my future anymore.”
Brenda, who declined to give her last name, said she has been living in the U.S. since she was 7 years old. She has since graduated from New Mexico State University and is working.
“I feel horrified knowing that I’ve worked so hard for something that I thought I had secured already,” she said. She later told the crowd, “It feels amazing to have people like you all that support us … you guys are on our side — that really, really means a lot to me and it touches my heart.”
Carlos Corral, another Dreamer who attends NMSU and works a firefighter and restaurant server, said, “We all want better (lives) — better than what our parents could offer us. And we shouldn’t be trialed as criminals for that.”