Each day, the buses arrive at the back of the Bentsen Tower of the Southern District Court in McAllen — a town about a four-hour drive south from San Antonio, and right on the border with Mexico.
The drivers park the buses at an angle and position the doors in such a way that passersby might not even notice the dozens of people shackled at their hands and feet, with a chain across their waists to keep the handcuffs in place — unless they know what to look for.
Each of them is led into the building by the combined efforts of U.S. Marshals, Border Patrol agents, and private security companies, like GeoCorp and G4S.
It’s here they each meet with their public defender, for about five minutes.
Then the busloads of people are ushered into a courtroom for a “mass trial,” which happens here twice a day, every day, part of the zero-tolerance policy for those accused of breaking immigration laws implemented recently by the Department of Justice.
Now, rather than the catch-and-release approach to deportations of prior administrations, where detainees were taken back to their country of origin or released while they awaited a hearing, migrants apprehended at the border are taken to criminal court — a move that has dramatically increased the workload for attorneys, crowded courtrooms to capacity, and overwhelmed immigration judges and courthouse staffs.
“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Richard Gould, a public defender for the Southern District of Texas. “We’re looking at between 70 and 75 in the morning and then up to another 70 to 75 in the afternoon. I mean, we had been accustomed to handling a caseload in the 30s and sometimes in the 40s for misdemeanors every day.”
Since the policy took effect last month, Gould and his colleagues have also had to deal with an entirely new issue: pleas for help and confusion from defendants who have been separated from their underage children. “This was not something that we were dealing with two months ago,” Gould says.
Scenes like this are now playing out every day in courtrooms along the United States’ southern border.
When you enter the courtroom to observe the hearings, you immediately hit the wall of body odor that comes from a group of 75 people wearing the clothes they were apprehended in — sitting next to each other in row after row, with barely an inch between them.
The courtrooms are so packed that there’s little room to sit. So you stand, next to the Border Patrol agents, U.S. Marshals, and private security assembled along the back of the room. They closely watch each defendant’s movements. If one of them slouches, dozes off, or puts their hands on the bench for support, they’re told to sit up straight.
“Put your arms down now,” a federal marshal whispers in Spanish to a defendant resting his arms on the back of the wooden bench he’s been sitting on for hours. “This isn’t your house.”
The judge on this particular day, J. Scott Hacker, gave each defendant a chance to add a statement prior to their sentencing. They all pleaded guilty, because they are advised by their lawyers to do so, in order to get the shortest sentence possible.
In this case, and most other days, the sentence is time served. This means that the defendants are done with criminal court and can move through the immigration system — they’re placed in ICE custody and held only as long as it takes to deport them.
They are each also charged with a $10 assessment fee from the court. A few of the defendants were concerned about this, and one had asked the judge several questions regarding the charge. This line of questioning met with snickering from the Border Patrol agents in the back.
For the defendants who have had their children taken away, the judge and their lawyers offered little insight. In the courtroom we were in, a man asked the judge when he might be reunited with his son. Judge Hacker could only tell him:
“I have no information regarding your child. Immigration doesn’t call the court or me personally and tell me what happened to your child. If that they did do that, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings. I’d be happy to relay the information to you, if I could. But they don’t do that. So hopefully somebody will get in touch with you from that side of the government.”
Between the sighs from the judge and the lawyers, there is a general sense of weariness in the courtroom. The subtle sound of chains clinking breaks through the brief moments of silence.
After about a three-and-a-half-hour trial, the defendants are placed in handcuffs and led out of the court, single file. There’s a short break, and a second round of defendants are brought in, and the process begins all over again.