Hacker proceeded in rapid-fire fashion, going one by one down each row to confirm the identities of each individual immigrant. The questions were yes-or-no, but for the purposes of the court record, every time a defendant replied, “Sí,” a translator for the court would call out, “Yes.” (The translation was unnecessary when the answer was “No.”)
First, Hacker asked each defendant to verify their “true and correct” name.
“Are you 18 years old?”
Are you from Nicaragua?
And so on, 85 times.
Not all of the defendants were in the U.S. for the first time. Some had crossed over the border multiple times before, and a few had lived in the country illegally for years before they were caught trying to return this past weekend.
But most in the courtroom on Monday were experiencing the American legal system for the first time, and Hacker gave them an overview of their rights as defendants. He asked several questions to ensure they were able to understand the proceeding. Were they under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medicine? Had they been treated for mental-health issues or a brain injury? Did they understand the charge of illegal entry into the U.S.? Had anyone threatened them, or promised them benefits if they pleaded guilty? After each question, he dutifully went down the line, seeking a reply from each defendant. Time and again, all 85 answered the same way.
Hacker explained that they each had the right to a trial—“You do not have to plead guilty today”—and he warned them of the consequences of a guilty plea, not only now but for years to come. “If you are not a U.S. citizen, and it is my understanding that none of you are,” he told the assembled defendants, “you could be deported and removed and sent back to your home country. You could be denied citizenship and admission to the U.S. in the future.”
The immigrants, one by one, said they understood. This was not the first time they were hearing these warnings. The public defender’s office, itself overwhelmed by the new policy in recent weeks, had met both individually and collectively with the defendants in preparation for the hearing. “Nothing I’ve said to you this afternoon should have been a surprise to you,” Hacker told them.
The crime of illegal entry carries a maximum punishment of six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, and a $10 court fee. But federal judges along the southern border have been giving out minimum sentences to a majority of undocumented immigrants, particularly those with no criminal histories who were caught crossing illegally for the first or second time. To avoid spending weeks more in jail awaiting trial, all 85 defendants on Monday pleaded guilty, and most left with a sentence of time served (the two or three days they had been in jail) and the $10 fee.
After the guilty pleas were entered, Hacker gave each of the defendants an opportunity to speak before he sentenced them. The courtroom was quiet except for the jangling of leg chains and handcuffs. As the judge went down the line, Aliman-Bendiks asked for leniency on their behalf. She noted that many of them were seeking asylum, and she asked that they be given what’s known as a “credible fear” hearing before being deported. And she told Hacker of every immigrant who had entered the country with children who were taken from them.