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California Starts Streamlining Prosecution For People Who Cross Border Illegally


All this week, the Trump administration has been struggling to reunite migrant families it had previously separated. That does not mean it has reversed the zero tolerance border policy. In fact, for everyone except parents with young children, criminal prosecution for crossing the border is only getting more likely so much so that this week San Diego set up a special courtroom to speed things up. Well, reporter Stan Alcorn takes us inside the first day of Operation Streamline in California.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: At 9:30 Monday morning, federal public defender Kimberly Trimble was sitting at a table in an underground garage, meeting the first of three clients she'd be representing that day. He'd just turned 18, and he couldn't stop crying.

KIMBERLY TRIMBLE: His responses to my questions was consistently, I want to get out of here; I want to go home; I don't want to be here. That is absolutely not a normal first client visit.

ALCORN: Not just because he was so upset but because he didn't really understand what was going on. Within the hour, Trimble had to move on to her next client. And within four hours, she had to be in court.


JILL BURKHARDT: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Each of you is here today because you have been charged in a criminal complaint with misdemeanor illegal entry.

ALCORN: Judge Jill Burkhardt furrowed her brow as defense attorney Janice Deaton stood up and objected to the lack of time, the poor conditions in Border Patrol custody and the fact that this whole accelerated process which several lawyers called separate and unequal was only being used on undocumented immigrants.


JANICE DEATON: Your Honor, the equal protection objection that I have is the nature of the entire proceedings.

ALCORN: Lawyer after lawyer made similar objections, but...


BURKHARDT: That motion is denied.

ALCORN: They were quickly dismissed. In the end, more than half the 41 defendants took the fastest way out of jail by pleading guilty. That included Kimberly Trimble's 18-year-old client.

TRIMBLE: This is the only time I've ever had a client who pleaded guilty the same day I met him.

ALCORN: This Operation Streamline process is new for California, but since its launch in Texas in 2005, some version of it has been used in every other border state. Victor Manjarrez says Streamline became a cornerstone of the enforcement operation in Tucson when he was Border Patrol chief there in the late 2000s.

VICTOR MANJARREZ: As a Border Patrol agent, the, you know, Streamline, that idea of focused prosecution, is something we always clamored for, something that we've always wanted.

ALCORN: The same could not be said for federal judges in California according to James Stiven, former San Diego judge.

JAMES STIVEN: The judges were certainly hopeful that we would not have to move to that kind of a process.

ALCORN: And he says federal prosecutors in California preferred to focus on more serious federal crimes until zero tolerance was announced in April. Then illegal entry prosecutions in California went from 16 that month to more than 800 in June. Defense attorneys called on the court to stand up to the executive branch and defend due process in letters, in interviews and in court. Federal defender Lauren Clark...


LAUREN CLARK: There is one other issue that I want to object to. I think there's an issue with the separation of powers.

ALCORN: Judge Jill Burkhardt disagreed.


BURKHARDT: It may reassure you, or it may not. These proceedings are being developed in response to the increase in filings not because of any dictates from the executive branch.

ALCORN: In other words, no one's forcing California to squeeze all these illegal entry cases into a single day of court. But as long as zero tolerance keeps ratcheting up the number of cases, judges here see some version of Streamline as the solution. For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in San Diego.

KELLY: That story comes to us from the investigative news program "Reveal" from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stan Alcorn