Differential criminalization under operation streamline: challenges to freedom of movement and humanitarian aid provision in the Mexico-US borderlands.

Author:Burridge, Andrew


On January 14, 2008, under the wider program of the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative, Operation Streamline was put into effect in the Tucson Sector of the Mexico-US borderlands. Initially implemented in Del Rio, Texas, this program--aimed at mass incarceration of undocumented persons to reduce repeated migration attempts--has been most rigorously applied in the Tucson Sector, known as both the busiest and deadliest corridor for migration. Every day approximately seventy migrants are apprehended by the US Border Patrol and then sentenced for up to 180 days imprisonment. I consider Operation Streamline and its impacts on undocumented migrants through the lens of local organizing, particularly by the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, asserting that such policies--which further militarize the border and justify criminalization of migrants in the public eye--put bodies at greater risk, even before they are prosecuted, through practices of spatial containment that add to the rigours of crossing the Sonoran Desert. In this work I explore the methods in which grassroots humanitarian aid groups apply practices of direct action to challenge such policies and promote freedom of movement.


Le 14 Janvier 2008, dans le cadre de l'>, le programme > est entre en vigueur dans le secteur Tucson de la zone frontaliere entre le Mexique et les Etats-Unis. D'abord mis en oeuvre a Del Rio, Texas, ce programme visant l'incarceration massive des sans-papiers afin de reduire les tentatives repetees de migration a ete le plus rigoureusement appliquee dans le secteur Tucson, couloir migratoire ayant la reputation d'etre le plus achalande et le plus meurtrier. Chaquejour, environ soixante-dix migrants sont apprehendes par la US Border Patrol, puis condamnes a un maximum de 180 jours d'emprisonnement. L'auteur considere le programme > et ses impacts sur les sans-papiers a travers le prisme de l'organisation locale, en particulier du groupe d'aide humanitaire No More Deaths, affirmant que de telles politiques, qui militarisent davantage la frontiere et justifient la criminalisation ales migrants au yeux du grand public, exposent les sans-papiers a un risque accru, avant meme qu'ils soient traduits en justice, a travers des pratiques de confinement spatial qui ajoutent aux rigueurs de la traversee du desert de Sonora. Dans cet article, l'auteur etudie les methodes par lesquelles les groupes d'aide humanitaire populaires font appel a la pratique de l'action directe pour contester ces politiques et promouvoir la liberte de mouvement.

Confining Freedom of Movement within the Tucson Sector

On January 14, 2008, Operation Streamline--under the multi-faceted program of the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative (ADPI)--came into effect within the Tucson Sector of the Mexico-US border. Initially implemented in Del Rio, Texas, in 2005, followed by Yuma, Arizona, and then Laredo, Texas, in 2007, this program is being most notably enforced in the 262-mile-wide Tucson Sector of southern Arizona. In a press release reporting on their successes of fiscal year 2008 within the Tucson Sector, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stated that:

Under the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative, 9,563 illegal aliens were successfully prosecuted sending a clear message that there will be consequences for entering illegally into Arizona. ADPI assures that each defendant prosecuted faces a sentence of up to 180 days in jail, a formal removal and a ban on legal re-entry to the United States for five years. (1) I argue that policies such as Operation Streamline work in several ways to deny freedom of movement to those seeking entry into the US without documentation. Further, I assert that in seeking to understand the work that such policies do, it is necessary to consider the spatial implementation and operation of these policies in their efforts to deny freedom of movement to particular populations who are criminalized by their presence within certain spaces. (2) The Tucson Sector, which is now subject to the enforcement of Operation Streamline and the ADPI, is known as both the busiest and deadliest corridor across the entire Mexico-US border. In 2005, 241 migrants died crossing into southern Arizona, (3) the worst year on record. This shift of migration paths has created a "funneling effect," (4) in which migrants are channelled into more remote and harsh terrain outside of urban areas. Since the implementation of militarization strategies such as Operation Gatekeeper were put into effect, large swathes of land in more hospitable areas of the Mexico-US borderlands have been walled off, creating new migration routes. In fiscal year 2007, prior to the implementation of Operation Streamline, over 378,000 people were arrested by United States Border Patrol (USBP) in the Tucson Sector alone, yet fewer than one-half of one per cent were prosecuted, the remainder being "voluntarily returned." (5)

Since the implementation of Operation Hold the Line in Ciudad Juarez/El Paso in 1993, and Operation Gatekeeper in Tijuana/San Diego in 1994, innumerable programs and policies have been put in place to restrict movement in this region and militarize the Mexico-US border against those attempting to cross without official documents. (6) Operation Streamline in the Tucson Sector represents a notably heightened push to further criminalize undocumented migrants, with specific ties to the growing migrant detention industrial complex across the United States. (7) I argue that policies such as Operation Streamline work to further criminalize migrants, not only for their act of crossing the border outside of an official port of entry, but also for their presence within certain spaces. (8) Further I argue that Operation Streamline works to criminalize and contain certain populations even if they are able to avoid apprehension, therefore serving a dual purpose. As Susan Bibler Coutin states in her work regarding the "spatialization of legality":

Unauthorized immigrants who are not apprehended by US immigration authorities are none the less excluded, to some degree, by policies that bar the undocumented from exercising certain rights and receiving certain services. (9) In this work I seek to take this assertion a step further, recognizing the wide-ranging impacts that such practices have in creating and criminalizing migrant bodies. Through my research on, and work alongside, the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, who provide assistance to migrants in the deserts of southern Arizona, (10) I aim to demonstrate the methods in which such policies work to further constrain the ability for freedom of movement, and in many cases, the very right to live well before someone is apprehended by the USBP.

I speak here then from the position of an academic as well as an activist working for the freedom of movement at a grassroots level, drawing on a No Borders politics from a theoretical and practical perspective. Most important to my research and praxis, I consider the work of Joseph Nevins, who has committed himself tirelessly to exploring the implications of border militarization practices upon undocumented populations. (11) Within his work, Nevins has put forward a particularly important challenge to academics and researchers working on issues pertaining to border militarization and freedom of movement. He argues that:

... it is imperative to engage in a critical dialogue about the factors that give rise to the fatalities [of migrants]. I assert that by not calling for an end to boundary enforcement as it relates to immigration or by legitimating such enforcement, the authors [academics and policy analysts] are resigning themselves to migrant deaths. (12) This work, then, seeks to move beyond demands for more "humane" border securitization and immigration policy, particularly in light of the ongoing adoption of humanitarian discourse by the USBP and CBP as a strategy to further legitimize its practices of denial of freedom of movement, (13) even as the death toll continues to grow, often exceeding five hundred or more deaths per year. (14) Within the US, current discourse in the popular media and by state and federal government has focused predominantly upon the construction of the simplistic binary of the "good" or productive migrant, versus that of the "bad" migrant, with many arguing that a guest-worker program or amnesty provides the answer to the problem of undocumented immigration into the United States. (15) Yet as Cynthia Wright has noted, practices such as amnesty, while beneficial to many living without documents and in positions of precarity (16) within the boundaries of certain nation-states, are typically followed by a series of more repressive measures against future migrant populations. (17) It is necessary, then, as other No Borders advocates have noted, to step beyond state-sanctioned methods of determining who is "legal" and who is "illegal" within nation-state boundaries and recognize that as long as boundary enforcement and immigration controls are seen as legitimate, abuses and deaths of non-citizens will continue. (18)

It is important to recognize the spatial nature of a specifically No Borders politics, and so I draw here upon a spatial perspective, including the need to understand the way in which policies such as Operation Streamline operate within and across space. Those working around critical understandings of space and place, in particular academic geographers in North America, have yet to effectively confront a specifically No Borders politics. (19) Many working outside of this explicit discipline, however, refer commonly to the spatial implications of No Borders politics, (20) a focus I aim to expand upon in this study of Operation Streamline and migration in the southern Arizona region.

Although it is imperative that academics across various fields engage with No Borders politics, to truly develop such an understanding we must...

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