Roughly 1,000 people marched to the federal courthouse in San Diego on Monday, outraged by a spike in criminal prosecutions -- mostly misdemeanor charges -- against migrants for illegal entry into the U.S. The caseload increase resulted directly from the new zero tolerance policy of prosecuting all people who enter the U.S. without papers, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May.
About a dozen protesters from the Free Our Future rally entered the courtroom that typically handles such cases at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, but were quickly escorted out.
Meanwhile, an estimated 800 to 1,000 protesters carrying signs with slogans like "Abolish ICE" marched from Barrio Logan, San Diego's historic Latino neighborhood, to the federal jail, where misdemeanor defendants are held. They then marched on to the courthouse to block the entrance.
Immigrant advocates unfurled a banner on the nearby Westin Hotel with the words "FREE OUR FAMILIES NOW!"
Prosecutions of Migrants Clogging Southern District Court
Prosecutions of first-time border crossers, including asylum-seekers, have already doubled in the Southern District since May and are expected to increase substantially in the coming weeks.
The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California plans to roll out "Operation Streamline," a fast-track procedure criticized by some defense attorneys and advocates as quasi-judicial, to speed up the number of convictions by next week.
A week ago the court handled 90 cases, mostly people facing misdemeanor charges for illegal entry, and stayed in session until 10:05 p.m. — a first for the San Diego court.
Judge Clinton Averitte was on the bench that night, and vowed not to stay that late again. The following day he stepped gingerly up the stairs to the dais, took his seat and instructed the courtroom of mostly attorneys to do the same.
Averitte came from Texas, where he just retired after 30 years on the bench, to help with the increase in cases here.
"I previously sat on Northern District of Texas," Averitte told counsel gathered at the hearing. "I'm on recall for the Southern District of California to take some cases while some of the judges here are unavailable.”
New Cases Processed Daily
As the clerk called out the numbers of the cases to be heard, U.S. marshals escorted 11 men and one woman into the courtroom in ankle chains. Still wearing street clothes, their facial expressions were grim, and they appeared bleary-eyed. A court interpreter handed each one headsets to listen in Spanish to the court proceedings.
Defense attorney Marcus Bourassa brought up the ankle chains during a lull in the proceedings.
"I do want to object on behalf of all of my clients who were brought in today in leg shackles," Bourassa said. "There's been no individualized showing that these people present a risk of flight, and I do think they have a constitutional right to be unshackled."
But the judge denied the request because it would likely delay proceedings. Besides, he said, no one in the courtroom had seen the shackles.
“Their feet and legs have not been visible to me or anyone else other than the marshals or anybody who wants to go look in the jury box," Averitte said.
He told defendants they were being charged with illegal entry, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine.
The defendants, nearly all young farmworkers with families, answered “si” or “yes” that they understood the charges.
By the end of the hour the judge had charged 12 defendants, explained their rights, assigned them attorneys and set their bonds.
The United States marshals escorted them out of the courtroom and prepared to bring in the next group.
KQED's Alex Hall and Polly Stryker contributed to this story.