Monday, for the first time, I sat in a courtroom.
We were in Tucson, Arizona for the beginning of our trip, with BorderLinks, an organization committed to educating people and inspiring them to action in the US/Mexico Border Lands.
We walked from the guest facility where we were staying to the courthouse to watch an Operation Streamline session. We held the court released packets in our hands, of the names of the immigrants who would be sentenced that day. The papers had their full names and the day they were arrested as well as “No” in response to if they spoke English or not for all of them. 10 pages. 78 people.
We filed into the back of the courtroom, to sit on the hard benches. Heads swiveled to look at us. Over 70 immigrants, all men save for 4 women. They wore streets clothes; jeans, hoodies, tennis shoes. Some were still wearing the clothes they crossed in. Many had been arrested a day or two before the court session, the very day or after that they crossed. They shifted and I bristled as I heard the sounds of their chains.
The judge began the session by calling up 8 people at one time. Each defendant had less than 30 minutes to meet with his/her court appointed lawyer to be explained their rights and the conditions of the plea bargain. Each lawyer represented multiple defendants per session.
I felt uncomfortable with the bright cleanliness of the courtroom and the casual conversational tone of the judge; almost as if he was reading the instructions to an ACT or SAT and not sentencing almost 80 immigrants to serve prison time. But instead of, “you have 60 minutes to complete this portion of the test, please mark the multiple choice answer of your choice by completely filling in the bubble…” I heard, “You have been charged with a criminal offense…you are sentenced to 180 days on misdemeanor, the felony charge is dismissed…”
Each individual was asked the same set of questions such as, “Are you willing to give up your right to trial to plead guilty today?” And the same response. “Si, Senor.” And, “How do you plead?” And the response, “Culpable” (guilty).
Two men in particular stood out to me. The first was a gentlemen who answered, “guilty” to everything the judge said. After a few minutes, the lawyer informed the court that his client was unable to understand Spanish or English because he only spoke an Indigenous dialect. The headsets that each defendant wore to hear the translation of what the judge was saying was ineffective for this gentleman. The court decided to post pone his case until a translator could be located. The second man was one who stood up to ask a question. “I would like to ask for a lesser sentence,” he explained in punctual, crisp English. “I have 180 days, and that is very difficult. That is very hard for me. I am asking for the court to give me a lesser sentence. And that is my question.” I looked down at the court paper, where beside his name it was indicated that he did not speak English.
They have one of two choices. They can refuse the plea bargain and be charged with a felony, risking prosecution for that charge depending on their record, or they can accept the plea bargain which sentences them to up to 6 months in a private corporate detention facility and their felony charge is dropped. Either way, they will eventually be deported. As I struggled to understand the terms of the court situation and the plea bargain, I couldn’t imagine how confused some of those individuals must have felt; dragged into an unfamiliar justice system, with only a 30 minute explanation of the process and their rights. Simplified to, “Respond yes to this, and no to this, and remember that you are guilty.” They have no say, and they have no real rights and they are wearing chains.
The judge dismissed each group of 8 by saying, “Best of luck to you all; thank you for your time.”
As if they had a choice. As if they’d had a say.
Their chains rattled as they walked past us, shackled at their wrists, feet, and around their waists, escorted out of the courtroom in a line. Some made eye contact with me. Most did not. Sentenced to prison as criminals for the crime of crossing a wall somewhere other than a port of entry. My cheeks felt hot and my throat was dry, silence until the next 8 were called up. My blood was simmering in my veins and I bit back the angry words pressing against my lips.
I have never felt such a mix of relief and frustration when the session was over. But for them, it’s just beginning.
Sunday night we participated in the All Souls Procession in Tucson. It’s an eclectic blend of races, cultures, and traditions coming together to honor loved one who have passed away. This year’s theme was remembering the people in our world who are not mourned, and the people society says are not worth our tears. As I walked in the procession, I held the memory of my Grandma close, as well as the lives of some of the individuals experiencing homelessness who have died on the streets unknown; often PATH is called to come identify the bodies. And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, how many immigrants have died in the deserts unknown and unmourned? Who will honor their memory?
As King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 1:18, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” I think that it’s important for us to remember that God wants our lives to be filled with joy, but that He does not want us to turn a blind eye to suffering. For me, I’m confronted with the truth that now that I’ve seen and experienced so much, I will never again have an excuse to claim ignorance. Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” I have been given knowledge, and the opportunities to do something with what I’ve learned. I have a responsibility as a citizen of this world, to do more good than harm. And I have the responsibility as a Christian to love deeply and extend radical hospitality.
I ask you to ponder a lot of the questions I’ve brought up about the Border Lands, and to then ask yourself what you believe about immigrants and about our nation’s borders? And what borders must we cross in order to see God’s will done?
And to learn more about the multi-billion dollar profit industry of incarcerating immigrants, watch Immigrants For Sale HERE