When Jose Rios walked into a Bank of America branch last year, he hoped to open an account for the car repair shop he owned. He didn’t expect to end up with a prison sentence.
Days after Rios provided the bank with a home address and Social Security number, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents showed up at his house looking for him. (Rios said ICE agents later told him that Bank of America turned him in.) Rios wasn’t home. His wife, a pretty, sad-eyed woman of 38, answered the door.
“They said, ‘if we don’t find [Jose], we come back for you,’” she said, sitting outside her daughters’ elementary school on a gorgeous California day while her smiling 2-year-old brought us handfuls of dainty red geraniums. Her daughters, the agents warned, could end up in foster care.
Both Jose and his wife, Marta, are undocumented immigrants. (The Observer has changed their names to protect their identities.) Their three girls—ages 2, 7 and 12—are U.S. citizens. Facing the prospect of a shattered family, Jose turned himself in to ICE.
In an audition for a model undocumented immigrant, Rios, 34, probably wouldn’t make the final cut. His parents brought him and his two brothers to California from Mexico when Jose was 3. He graduated from high school in Fresno, a rough-around-the-edges city in California’s Central Valley. Rios had a green card until, in 2000 at age 21, he was caught with 35 pounds of marijuana in San Diego and charged with possession with intent to sell. He spent 37 days in jail, was stripped of his green card and sent to Mexico, a country he hardly knew. That same year he and Marta married; she was pregnant with their first child. There was no way he was staying in Mexico. “I don’t have nothing in Mexico,” he says. “My brothers, my sisters and parents, my wife and my daughters are in California.”
In the estimation of the federal government, Rios is a “criminal alien.” When he was caught with that marijuana, he lost his legal claim to his adopted country. He became a double-outcast: an unauthorized immigrant with a criminal record.
In the simplest terms, he is a “criminal alien” and convicted drug smuggler. But that simple narrative leaves out key details of his life: He has three U.S. citizen daughters, the oldest of whom plays in a school mariachi band, serves on student council, is an ‘A’ student, and seems bound for success. It doesn’t include his decision—after his initial drug conviction—to become a confidential informant for a California police department, helping put together drug busts that swept dealers off the streets. It ignores his skills as a welder and mechanic, and his successful small business. It doesn’t include his turning to God; the Rioses are churchgoing Pentecostals. Jose plays bajo sexto, piano and guitar in the church band.
Rios says he’s been paying for his mistake repeatedly. “It was a one-time deal,” he says of his drug conviction. “I was going through a rough time. I saw the opportunity for some money, and I went through with it. It was a big mistake; I’ve been suffering the consequences from that ever since.”
For years, Rios, despite his illegal status, managed to lay low. But in 2006, he went to work at an auto-body shop owned by a friend. After only a few weeks on the job, the police raided the shop and arrested the owner—who they accused of selling drugs—as well as the employees. (Jose says he was ignorant of what was going on.) While Rios was sitting in jail, a Fresno cop paid him a visit. He asked if Rios would work as a confidential informant. The deal, as Rios understood it, was that he’d help the cops arrange drug busts, and in exchange they would get him a special visa. He’d snitch his way to freedom.
But the narcotics unit imploded before Rios got his visa. Several officers were arrested on charges that they had stolen a car from a suspected drug dealer.
“They dropped all the [confidential informants],” he says. “I was stuck right there. I didn’t know what to do.” In 2010, Rios was pulled over, he says, for a missing light on his license plate. He was arrested and sent to Mexico again.
Rios was back in Fresno within two weeks, playing with his little girls at the house with the white wrought-iron fence, the dust from his border crossing still caked to his shoes.
With a growing family, Rios wanted a steady income. He planned to take his experience as a mechanic and his enviable collection of tools and start his own auto-body shop. That led him to Bank of America, and into the hands of the criminal justice system.
Rios had been detained before, of course, but this time U.S. officials handled his case differently. In 2005, the Bush administration had instituted a key policy change: Instead of simply detaining undocumented immigrants who have done nothing more than cross the border and sending them out of the country or releasing them, the U.S. government would now file criminal charges and send them to prison. Rios was charged with illegal re-entry, a federal immigration felony that earned him a 14-month sentence, much of it spent in a notorious private prison in South Texas. Rios pleaded guilty, as do 97 percent of all immigration-related defendants.
Since 2005, immigration has been criminalized as never before. In 2000, when George W. Bush came into office, there were about 10,000 convictions for illegal entry and re-entry—essentially crossing the border illegally; in 2011, even as the number of people crossing the border had plummeted during the Obama administration, there were more than 71,000 such convictions—a 700 percent increase. Immigration is now the most-prosecuted federal crime, surpassing weapons, white-collar crimes and even drugs. Locking up unprecedented numbers of immigrants has swelled the federal prison system. New prisons are being constructed at a rapid pace, most of them privately run. Unlike the rest of the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, prisons for immigrants are completely privatized. So while the mass criminalization of immigrants has torn parents from their families, removed skilled people from the workforce and had a debatable impact on border security, the policy has served one interest very well—private-prison companies.
Operation Streamline sounds innocuous compared to its militaristic cousins from the past: Operation Hold the Line, Operation Endgame and Operation Wetback. But Streamline, launched in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, may be the most ambitious. ICE has adopted Operation Streamline in some form along the U.S.-Mexico border, except in California. It’s a “zero-tolerance” policy aimed at securing a criminal conviction for every undocumented immigrant apprehended on the border. No exceptions. Operation Streamline is the most visible program, but it applies only to immigrants captured on the border—and it’s just part of America’s move to criminalize immigrants anywhere in the country. Rios was captured hundreds of miles from the border—and wasn’t subject to Operation Streamline—but he too was prosecuted and imprisoned. Between 2005 and 2011, more than 376,000 convictions for illegal entry and illegal re-entry were secured.
The policy changes, Operation Streamline included, were perhaps born of frustration. Prior to the program, the Department of Homeland Security would either quickly return unauthorized immigrants to their home countries or put them into the civil immigration system, where they could appear before an immigration judge. However, with a boom in Border Patrol agents and a steady stream of migrants across the border, the existing immigrant detention centers filled up. That meant authorities had to resort to “catch and release” for so-called Other than Mexican immigrants, who would receive a notice to appear in front of a civil immigration judge and then be released. Few bothered to show up. Operation Streamline virtually eliminated “catch and release” by moving migrants from the civil immigration and detention system into the criminal justice system. But now the criminal side is also feeling the strain.
Federal courts, especially those in border districts, are now overrun with immigration cases. Both first-time border crossers and unauthorized immigrants with deep ties to the U.S. are getting swept up.
Immigration attorneys, advocates and undocumented immigrants themselves have nothing but scorn for the program. “I think it’s useless and a waste of my tax dollars, and on some level just reprehensible to be punishing people for wanting to work and feed their families,” says Dan Kowalski, a prominent immigration attorney in Austin. He doesn’t think the program offers much deterrent, either. “I analogize to the Berlin Wall. People were shot and killed trying to get over, under, through or around the Berlin Wall for something as abstract as political freedom. When you’re dealing with something as concrete as hunger, you’re going to go through bullets, barbed wire and fences.”