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Appeals Court Mandates Change To Mass Hearings For Border Crossers

PHOENIX — Federal courtrooms in Tucson and Yuma, Ariz., will be adjusting the way they conduct mass hearings for immigrants charged for illegal border crossings.

Under the program known as Operation Streamline, some 50 to 100 immigrants appear in court together in mass hearings held in several courts across the border region, including in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. In Tucson’s federal courthouse, up to 70 immigrants appear every day in these hearings.

In that single hearing, defendants make their initial appearance, can choose to plead guilty, and receive a sentence. In the past, there were a variety of ways that individual judges conducted those mass hearings and accepted guilty pleas. 

Now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has made clear that each individual defendant must be questioned individually by the judge to ensure they understand their rights before they enter guilty pleas.

The clarification stems from the 2009 case of Delcia Arqueta-Ramos. After being apprehended at the border, Arqueta-Ramos stood in a federal courtroom in Tucson with 62 other defendants who were also entering guilty pleas that day. The presiding magistrate judge addressed all the defendants at once.

Arqueta-Ramos, who was represented by a federal public defender, requested a private hearing but the judge denied it. 

When it was time to enter her guilty plea, Arqueta-Ramos stood in a group with five others. The judge went through a list of several questions required before taking a guilty plea, such as “Do each of you understand your right to a court trial?” and “Do any of the defendants feel threatened or forced to plead guilty?” 

The defendants answered the judge’s questions as a group. 

The only time Arqueta-Ramos was addressed individually was when she was asked how she would plead, guilty or not guilty.

She said guilty, and was deported that day.

But Arqueta-Ramos  appealed her conviction, arguing that she was not questioned personally in court, as required by the rules of federal criminal procedure.

On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Arqueta-Ramos and vacated her conviction. The court found that “although the court did not err by advising the defendants of their rights en masse, it erred by not questioning Arqueta-Ramos individually to ensure that she understood her rights.”

That means in the future, Operation Streamline proceedings held within the Ninth Circuit will have to take extra time in order to question defendants individually to make sure they understand the rights they are giving up by entering a guilty plea and the maximum sentence they could get. The ruling does not apply to courts in New Mexico or Texas because they do not fall within the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction.

The federal public defender for Arizona, Jon Sands, welcomed the ruling and said he expected judges would adjust their hearings to conform with Friday’s order immediately.

[The defendants] are getting a criminal record which may bar them in the future and may prevent them from ever coming back legally. Before that happens, we should ensure that the federal criminal rules of criminal procedure are followed. They are followed for every criminal defendant in every criminal case where they plead guilty, there should be no exceptions.

The change will also mean these proceedings will take up more time in court.

The mass hearings used in Operation Streamline have long been criticized by immigrant rights advocates. And this is not the first time the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found that Tucson judges have violated defendants’ due process rights in the way that Operation Streamline hearings are administered. 

While crossing into the U.S. illegally is usually treated as a civil violation, under Operation Streamline, federal prosecutors automatically file criminal charges against all migrants caught in certain sectors of the border. Those who plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge of illegal entry can get up to six months in prison and a fine. Those who are caught again can be charged with illegal reentry, a felony.

The immigration bill passed by the Senate in June would have tripled the size of Operation Streamline. But as NPR’s Ted Robbins reported earlier this month, there are questions about how successful the program is as a deterrent. 

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.