Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Afternoon at the Federal Courthouse

Almost the instant my feet touched the Arizona soil, I heard about the state's issue of immigration. In Los Angeles, I knew undocumented immigrants, and the troubles I heard were often about finding work and a living space without being turned in to la migra. In Tucson, just a few hours from the Mexico-U.S. border, the struggles of the immigrants are ones of basic survival.
I have read about NAFTA/CAFTA, wars and poverty that have pushed Mexicans and Central Americans toward our borders, but not of the journey from their home to U.S. soil. From my friends involved in the struggle for immigrant rights, I have learned that many immigrants are guided by coyotes to whom the immigrants pay a hefty fine. The coyotes bring their paying customers across the border, but are not always to be trusted with having the well being of the payee foremost in their minds. For example, there are accounts of immigrants being led in circles so the coyote can establish his power and control. The environment also preys on those crossing. The cascading terrain of the Sonora Desert, which straddles the Mexico-Arizona border, flourishes with cacti, wildflowers and brush while it also provides a home to snakes, wild cats, deer, hawks, coyotes and more. In all, crossing the border is dangerous, tiresome and lengthy. The end of the journey comes with defeat for some, either in death or detainment by the Border Patrol.
Those who are detained at the Mexico-Arizona border are processed through Operation Streamline. This federal program has been active for a few years now in the border states. Federal funding, and the use of the United States federal court system, afford the prosecution of each alleged trespass from Mexico into the U.S. In Tucson, the proceedings take place Monday through Friday at 1:30pm. The trials are open to the public, thus young law students and human rights activists are often present to study or be a witness.
Felice kindly obliged me and brought me to the federal courthouse on March 8. We entered the courtroom on the second floor and I was suddenly overcome by the odor of Skid Row. It was a wall of smell that was all too familiar from my time serving and talking with men and women who had limited access to showers and a change of clothes. I looked to my left and there were rows of Hispanic men looking exhausted and unbathed.
Felice and I sat in the rows on the opposite end of the seating area, as directed by the bailiff. When we claimed our seats, we saw a short row of women with their backs against the partition which separated them from the courthouse pews. Some were wearing orange prison jumpsuits. There were yet another two rows of men sitting against the far wall in the far corner of the room. My heart broke thinking of the rain that had come down on the desert in the days before, the night's frigid temperatures and the tumult they all inevitably faced.
All of the detained were wearing earpieces so to hear the translator who sat to the right of the judge. Their arms were restrained by handcuffs looped around a chain belt, and their ankles were cuffed with a small chain allowing a minimal stride. The soft clinks of each prisoner's metal multiplied in the courtroom and built to a small thunder.
It was difficult to tell how many lawyers were present as they were pacing around the courtroom, talking with each other, shuffling papers. The judge entered and climbed some steps to his raised booth. Meanwhile, some defense attorneys rallied to their clients, encouraging them to stand and bringing them to the five standing microphones neatly lined in front of the judge. The first defense attorney to address the judge explained that his client did not understand Spanish and needed a translator for a native Mexican dialect. The judge asked why that was important. The defense attorney continued to say this was his client's second trespass and wanted to make it explicitly clear to him the consequences he faces would he trespassed a third time. The judge succumbed and marked a new date for his hearing.
After an additional pair of similar cases, the judge addressed the whole of the legal staff. Suddenly, approximately 15 lawyers stood, and in unison responded to the judge's routine and blanket questioning in preparation for trial. Then the judge shifted his weight so to see all of the defendants. Gazing downward from his platform seating, he addressed them en masse and detailed the consequences of pleading guilty and not guilty, the rights given to all defendants in the U.S. federal court, and made time for potential questions. Not one of the chained men and women spoke.
Five by five, the defendants were called by name to stand at the microphones in front of the judge. Their lawyers lined behind them. In some cases, the lawyers smiled at their client or patted the defendant on the back. The judge asked each of the detained immigrants the same questions: if the he/she is a citizen of Mexico, if he/she crossed the border at a place or time not permitted by the United States, and how the defendant pleads. Interspersed were available moments for the defendant to pose questions, or comment before sentencing. After their brief time standing before the judge, the men and women were sentenced and shuffled out to the holding cells.
The path out of the courtroom brought the immigrants walking toward the "audience" of the court. I saw each and every prosecuted face after sentencing. Some wore looks of relief, others sadness and still others held a blank stare. Once, a lawyer with his hand on the shoulder of a client tried to interject some quick words before he departed. The client furrowed his brow and simply said, "No mas, no mas," and shrugged off his legal representation. In my pitiful attempt to instill some dignity into their court experience, I tried to make eye contact with those who looked in my direction; and when I was successful, I offered a faint smile. But I had to accept my role as witness, and nothing more, as still five more immigrants approached the judge.
Each person who was sentenced that day had made a plea bargain, and many were sentenced to be imprisoned for 30 to 180 days depending on the charge. I found it terribly ironic that these men and women were being punished for crossing illegally into the United States, yet the federal government felt it just to keep them incarcerated in an already overcrowded prison system on the United States' dime for up to six months. I am more concerned about the waste of federal funds on imprisoning immigrants which demonstrates that, as a country, we are unwilling to spend money on an "illegal alien" unless it is to punish them.
About halfway through the series of quintets, the judge began to dole out a ruling of time served. As much as I could gather from the legal rhetoric of which I am not adept, the second half of defendants had crossed the border for the first time (or at least were in court for the first time), and their charges were lighter than those previous who had multiple trespasses on their records. Upon this ruling, the defendants were required to serve no more jail time. The first-timers would soon be deported to a Mexican border town, which is most likely nowhere near their home. Still, I silently cheered for this small victory. Finally, I thought, a silver lining in this procedure. Then the judge warned they could be held by the Border Patrol before deportation. He mentioned no specific amount of time--hours? days? weeks? And when would those awarded time served be handed over to the Border Patrol? My muted sense of glee was extinguished.
By the time the final five approached the microphones, the sounds of the rattling chains had dramatically diminished, and I could more clearly hear the judge's mumbled tones. These five had faced previous criminal charges in the United States unrelated to their immigration status. The prosecutor spoke up for the first time--besides the routine, "Yes, your honor," and "No, your honor"-- and advocated for an added 5 to 20 days to their sentences. One man had been convicted of assault in 2009. He had been charged and served for that crime; yet because he had re-entered the country and this was on his record, he was sentenced to an additional 10 days in prison. The woman standing next to him was sentenced to an additional 20 days for human trafficking. Her lawyer noted she was a single mother of a 2 year old, she hadn't actively participated in the illegal situation. She had not understood that the vehicle she was riding in held victims of human trafficking. As the judge sentenced her, he warned that if she decided to re-enter the United States illegally, she could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison for the felony. "Twenty days is a pretty good deal for you," he reassured.
The very last person to be processed that day received an added 10 days to his sentence for a misdemeanor offense in 2003. He was 18 at the time of the offense. I dropped my head into my hands, and silently recognized our shared age. And as he exited the courtroom, Operation Streamline completed for the day. I had watched 75 immigrants--74 Mexicans and one Honduran; 9 women and 64 men--be prosecuted under United States law; and after two hours of repetitive sentencing and legal jargon, I was free to go.
Many of us do not live a day's drive from the Mexico-U.S. border, and therefore our attention to immigrant rights is not as urgent as in Tucson, for example. And for some, this distance from the border affords us the comfort of assuming characteristics of immigrants such as parasitic, pathetic desperation, lazy, and unwilling to learn English. However, none of these perceptions take into account the humanity, suffering and basic needs of those who cross to the United States, nor do the stereotypes recognize the comparative wealth and privilege we have north of the border at the cost of those south of the border. These narrow views allow us to be complicit in the condemnation of our brothers and sisters and ignorant to their strife; they encourage the chasm already enforced by the Border Patrol and Homeland Security; and they provide little room in our hearts for the graces of hospitality and love.
Should we take the moment to open our minds and reshape our hearts to be aware of life outside our own experiences, we might better understand our global family. Change is within us.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Winter Summary

Travels since November have taken me through Washington, Oregon, California and landed me in Arizona (my first time in the southwest). I rode through northern California with the company of three young community-searching, simple-living explorers. All of us, strangers at the beginning of the trip (brought together by a Craigslist rideshare ad), hugged goodbye after the 8 hour drive.

In California, I was confronted with questions about my life plans and kindly offered a house in exchange for serving the poor (this is a very simplified version of the story). I declined for the time being.

A few mornings, at the crack of dawn, I accompanied a volunteer to the San Francisco food terminal to retrieve unwanted and/or unsell-able produce. We filled our large truck with six full pallets of food to be distributed to the hungry. Despite my not being a morning person, I was able to stay alert enough to speak Spanish with the laborers and avoid being run over by a forklift or two.

For a week, I spent time along the central Californian coast, breathing in fresh air and coming close to tears as the sun set. I even went to a barn dance.

The holidays beckoned me to Los Angeles where I was reunited with my LACW family and boyfriend, Sam. Originally planning to spend only two weeks in southern California, I spent two months. I figured this to be an improvement from the last time I expected to stay a limited time and ended up staying for two years.

A venture to another community quickly sent me back to Los Angeles. I am learning many lessons on hospitality, thankfulness and humility, and finding that the most effective (and the most undesirable) way to know how we should treat others is to experience mistreatment by others.

And now I am in Tucson, Arizona, with Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa. They have graciously hosted me since the end of January. The pair publish the radical newspaper The Nuclear Resister, which chronicles acts of dissent by those who advocate an end to war and nuclear weapons. Also printed in the paper are the address of peace prisoners who are serving time in jail for their nonviolent civil disobedience. Subscribers are encouraged to write letters of support and hope to these men and women. Jack and Felice have been doing this work for 30 years.

In their three decades of witness and independent reporting, they have acquired stacks of archives. I am here as their intern, helping to dig through and organize their boxes of articles, photos and letters until April.

Tucson is a friendly city with erratic weather thus far--80 degrees one day, clouds and rain the next. The city is scattered with cacti and haloed by mountains. It is also bike-friendly, by which I mean it has bike routes and is substantially flat. Tucson hosts the University of Arizona, which means there are a lot of coffee shops and obscure stores. I am happy here.

For now, this is my life and I am grateful for all of (mis)adventures I have come across since June.

Lent is upon us now, and I am turning my thoughts inward, slowly sculpting my heart to be more open to God's eternal Love and Grace. If you also celebrate Lent, I hope yours to be fruitful.