Wreckage of the Human Heart

Operation Streamline, a fast-track court system for migrants designed to get them in and out and off to private prisons where money can be made on each bed filled, takes place in Tucson, Arizona every day of the week at 1:30 p.m., at 400 E. Congress courthouse. Operation Streamline began in Del Rio, Texas, in 1995 and was expanded to eight cities throughout the United States, but today remains only in Tucson, Del Rio, and Laredo. The system costs taxpayers half a million to over a million dollars a day. Like the wall, it’s supposed to keep us safe and keep people from fleeing their countries.

It doesn’t work. Anyone who works on the border can tell you. I can tell you. I work with the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans, whose mission is to save lives in the desert, and I can tell you, building a bigger, taller, longer wall won’t work either.

Let me tell you about a recent day at Operation Streamline in Tucson.


Do I start with the smell? The smell of eight women and over fifty men who have just been apprehended in the desert in the last day or two, who are dry, dusty and wearing the same clothes they crossed in? There are no showers in the desert.

Or do I start with the shackles, on hands and ankles, so these desperate souls have to shuffle in shoes with no laces when called to the front of the court with translator earphones that have to be adjusted by their attorneys because their shackled hands can’t reach that far.

Or do I start with a few migrants who have no shirts, and are wearing blue paper shirts as if they were going into surgery? Or the man whose pants are falling down because his belt has been taken away, and his female attorney has to adjust his chain to fall below his waist to hold up his trousers?


Or should I start with the suits, the attorneys in their polished shoes, three-piece suits, and ties, who saunter in through the swinging gate of the courtroom as if it’s just another day in the neighborhood, who smile and joke, and attend to their smartphones carried beneath notebooks while they pretend to be interested in the proceedings?

Or should I start with the Border Patrol agents in court who wear white plastic gloves, or the attorneys who all have dispensers of hand sanitizer on their desk, their protection against “the other?”

Or should I start with the fact that to begin, the judge calls the migrants forward by number, only adding names once they have shuffled forward to receive their sentences, finally acknowledging that they are human beings?

Or should I start with the facts that all of today’s migrants speak no English, and that even I am confused as to what the correct answer to the judge is, yes or no?


Do I start with the date most of them were apprehended, in Douglas, Naco, Nogales, Lukeville, Sasabe, on a day, February 11, when I, a privileged white American educator, was teaching a class on illustrated journaling, a day when my students and I were playing with art, coloring, cutting and pasting and eating chicken salad for lunch, a day when the migrants were rounded up, thrown in the back of a pickup truck and taken to deportation centers where they agonized over whether they would see their families again.

I scrutinize each face as they shuffle to the front of the courtroom. Did I serve any one of these souls at the El Comedor dining room, an aid station run by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, where rice and beans and respect are gladly served up to help them make it through another day?


As the day draws to a close, a tearful man pleads with the judge, asking for a reduction in his 180-day sentence, a longer sentence because this is not his first time to cross.

“I apologize for entering your country again, your honor. I have a 12-year-old daughter here, a US citizen, with her mother. They cannot afford rent or food. There is no work in Mexico. Can you please reduce my sentence?”

The judge replies she can do nothing, that his plea comes with the agreed sentence. “Good luck to you, sir,” she says.

Another requests permission to speak to the judge.

“I’m sick, your honor, I need medical care.”

Her response is matter-of-fact: “Be sure to tell the detention center that when you arrive.”

As the last of the last approach the judge for their sentences, their chains rattle against the hard wooden pews of the courtroom. One young man, at 15 a few years older than my grandson, pleads his case and is released with a stern warning. Again, the judge says, “Good luck to you.” What does luck have to do with the “wretched refuse yearning to breathe free?”


Meanwhile the three-piece suits gather their briefcases and swagger out the creaking gate. The creaking is the only sound left in the almost empty, now silent room where “justice has been served.” After each exit, the gate swings back and forth, back and forth, until it swings no more.

The judge ends the session with “Have a nice day” to whomever is left. I’m drained, and I cannot smile. One attorney, who apparently refuses to dress in a suit, the one with a gray ponytail, wearing leathers covered with patches perhaps of places he has sailed into on his motorcycle, is the last to leave the courtroom. He whistles a tune as he saunters by.


Just another day down at Operation Streamline and another half a million or so added to the taxpayer tab.



Gail Frank is the founder of the writing institute, Creative Journeys, and teaches writing workshops in Oregon, Arizona, and Michigan. A former columnist about the joys of small town life on the Oregon Coast, she now lives 40 miles from the Mexico border where she writes about the human stories of migration.


  1. OMG, Gail–what a piece–and what a tragedy–no, what a travesty! How awful for such a beautiful writer to have to use her talent making us aware of how little we have evidently learned from all the similar events taking place before–and after–WWII.
    Like Marie, I’m left feeling angry, inept & helpless: I have no way to help physically–the best that I can do is vote–support a few organizations, try to print–and tell everyone I know to read Persimmon Tree and your story. So I thank you for your story, and Persimmon Tree for this issue.

  2. Beautifully written. I serve the Green Valley-Sahuartia Samaritans with Gail Frank and as a witness in the early days of Operation Streamline in Tucson, I want to attest to her spot-on report.

    Yes indeed, the smell, and when the detainees shuffled into the courtroom–men and women both, remember–the SOUND and sight of those shackles made me begin to cry. In this country! Dedicated to the rule of law! In my lucky life, I had never seen anything like it and still marvel at what human beings do to human beings.

  3. I feel like I witnessed Operation Streamline, including the smells and the utter human humiliation. How long can this injustice continue? Why is there not more outrage? This is happening in our community every day!

  4. Thank you Gail for exposing all our senses to the story that obviously allows us to override intellectual discussions on policy, politics, money and law. There is need of careful vetting of all those things, but you have shown us the people and the treacherously deep spiritual problem we face here—right here in our collective and individual hearts. Thank you.

  5. Thank you Gail for reporting on and participating in this issue. This complex issue is so policitized it is hard to see the way ahead, but can’t we begin with the premise that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and live a fulfilling life? We need sound immigration policy that helps us evolve into the multi-racial culture we are fast becoming. Resiliency as a country will be the reward if we can allow it.

  6. Such a beautifully understated piece about such piercing high drama. Thank you for writing it.
    I personally think America would collapse quite quickly if all illegal immigrants were suddenly deported. They build all the new buildings, including new homes. They do the bulk of maintenance work on most structures in the U.S. They take care of millions of children of working parents at substandard wages.
    We need a consistent, HUMANE immigration policy. There is nothing wrong with a good strong immigration policy. Every country needs one. Europe is suffering for their weak immigration policies that were created by guilt for colonizing.
    But people can be treated kindly, their stories listened to, and basic needs for dignity attended to.

  7. This is a heart wrenching story. This situation should not be happening in our country. My Dad was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy as a small boy.
    Humane immigrations laws are desperately needed in our country. Thank you for an excellent article.

  8. Gail, This is a touching story. I had an idea it was really bad for the immigrants who are fleeing their countries. It’s hard to believe that a county of “so called Christians” (of which I am one) who are taught to love one another, to be good to the poor and downtrodden, to love thy neighbor as thyself, etc. can be so mean spirited and full of apathy. Your story drew me into the courtroom, allowed me to smell the stench and fell the hunger and fear of the people. It’s hard to believe that in 2018, we don’t remember our past, and we continue to repeat the insults to humanity. Thank you for sharing your story. What I want to know is, what can I do to help?

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