Some lawyers call it the dungeon. Others call it the garage. Guards call it the sub-block.
Whatever the name, the windowless basement beneath the federal courthouse in San Diego hosts a very particular kind of justice under Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
Since last week, this former car park has been where defence lawyers in this corner of southern California confer with clients who are charged with entering the US illegally.
There are tables and chairs but little privacy – more than two dozen defendants, attorneys, translators and US marshals share the open space.
And there is little time. Lawyers have just three hours to introduce themselves, to discover why and how their clients – migrants and asylum seekers – crossed the border and to explain the intricacies of plea deals, misdemeanours and bonds, all before the clients are herded into court for a mass hearing.
“You’re explaining all of this to them at a time that they’re visibly dirty, exhausted and terrified and expecting them to understand the long-term, forever consequences of whatever they decide,” said Leila Morgan, of Federal Defenders of San Diego.
Janice Deaton, another defence attorney, said the improvised pre-trial meeting venue underlined the system’s wider injustice. “We’re calling it the dungeon. To accommodate Jeff Sessions’ and Donald Trump’s order, they’ve created this space. These people wouldn’t have been arrested a month ago. It’s pretty despicable.”
Deaton has filed an objection in court, citing lack of privacy.
San Diego’s subterranean pre-trial interview space is a consequence of Sessions, the attorney general, issuing an order in April to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally, a significant escalation of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
Many people who previously would have been swiftly deported or processed through civil courts are now swamping federal courts.
To control the flux, the southern district of California last week started fast-tracking detainees in group hearings, a system called Operation Streamline, which Texas and Arizona adopted long before Trump. Liberal California had resisted adopting the so-called “assembly-line justice” until now.
Holding pre-trial interviews in a former car park is a San Diego innovation.
The US marshals service, which protects federal courts and controls the space beneath the Edward J Schwartz federal building, declined a Guardian request to visit. The San Diego district attorney’s office did not respond to an interview request.
Defence attorneys painted a bleak picture of daily scenes in the basement.
Escorted by marshals, they walk through parked cars and a fence into a space about half the size of a baseball court, with carpets, temporary partitions, foldout tables and chairs.
With the marshals watching, the lawyers have from 9am to midday to each confer with up to four clients. They introduce themselves, explain the criminal charge – misdemeanor illegal entry – and explain the government’s offers to truncate sentences in return for guilty pleas. The alternative is to seek a bond, prolonging the case and probably the detention.
This pre-trial process usually takes about two weeks, giving lawyer and client a chance to build rapport. If handling four clients, a lawyer in the basement has an average of 45 minutes. In the absence of a common language, translation soaks up precious time.
“We’re down there scrambling. There’s so little time,” said Andrew Nietor, a defence attorney.
“For the first time in 14 years of doing this, I’m having trouble remembering clients’ names because it happens so fast,” said Morgan.
Detainees are shackled and often distraught and disorientated.
Just hours or days earlier they may have been trekking through desert scrub, for many the final leg of a long, treacherous journey, until they were caught by border patrol agents.
Detainees are held in crowded “hieleras” – cold detention rooms – unable to bathe, brush teeth or change clothes, according to a report this week by attorneys who visited border patrol stations and family detention centres. Few sleep well, if at all, on concrete, with cell lights permanently on. Food is semi-thawed.
Those sent to San Diego end up in the courthouse basement for a high-speed pre-trial briefing.
“I’m just disgusted by it. No other word,” said Deaton.
Many clients struggle to grasp what is happening, said lawyers. Some are traumatised, others are distracted by the sight of relatives or friends or traffickers at other tables.
A US marshal’s office representative said the converted basement solved the shortage of private interview rooms.
A car park in the 1990s, then a detainee holding centre, now a pre-trial interview space. Defence attorneys were consulted about the conversion, said the official. “We made changes to the space on the basis of their recommendations – put in carpet, insulation for sound.”
Defence attorneys say the improvised space reflects wider, deeper problems with Operation Streamline.
It is a lottery – courts sometimes drop charges against Asian defendants for want of translators. Some defendants are so exhausted they fall asleep in court.
On Thursday this week – an unusually slow day in court 2A – six defendants from Mexico and El Salvador, including a truck driver, mechanic, car washer and nurse, sat on a bench, heads bowed, wearing translation headphones.
How do you plead? asked the judge. Each answered in turn. Culpable, culpable, culpable, culpable, culpable, culpable. “Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty,” said the translator.
Did they understand they would probably be deported upon completing their sentences? asked the judge.
Sí, sí, sí, sí, sí, sí. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” said the translator.
From the defendants taking the oath to the case wrapping: 30 minutes.
The system coerced defendants into accepting plea deals, said Lauren Cusitello, an attorney who represented Jose Atanacio.
The Mexican entered the US illegally in 2014 to escape violence, followed by his wife and two children. Earlier this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents caught him – he wasn’t the target but a “collateral” arrest. Border patrol caught him last week trying to sneak back into the US to rejoin his family.
Details of his case, and the reason he pleaded guilty rather than seek bond with a view to claiming asylum, did not emerge in court.
“Part of our jobs is to tell our clients’ stories,” said Cusitello. “We’re not getting to do that.”