Recently, I was part of a delegation that was thoughtfully organized by Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) to learn more about and bear witness to the crisis at the border. One part of the program was to visit a federal courtroom hearing in San Diego, which provided a first-hand view of the Trump/Sessions “operation streamline” and “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants for crossing the border. What I observed was disturbing and heartbreaking.
I watched six young immigrant men in their early 20’s and one woman escorted into the courtroom by as many U.S. Marshalls. They were being criminally charged with a misdemeanor for unauthorized entry into the U.S. Previously, federal prosecutors exercised their discretion and common sense to prioritize serious felonies over misdemeanors allowing individuals to address their immigration status in the U.S. through civil immigration court – a change designed to disadvantage them. Although they do have a right to a federal public defender (and many appointed attorneys work tirelessly for them), most meet their legal counsel the very day they are due in court. Imagine if we as Americans were treated similarly. Would we consider this to be appropriate due process or true justice?
As an observer, my anxiety increased by merely being in the courtroom. It is an intimidating environment inherent with formality – the black-robed judge on the dais, a table of prosecutors, another table with defense attorney’s squeezing around one table, interpreters providing simultaneous translation to the defendants who were wearing headsets, and the many armed U.S. Marshalls monitoring the courtroom. I could only wonder what these seven young immigrants were experiencing.
From what I observed, their facial expressions said it all – I saw fear, anxiety, confusion, and exhaustion. Not exactly ideal conditions for dispersal of justice. None were English speakers with Spanish as their native language and one whose language was indigenous Mayan – it was unclear how much Spanish he understood. The proceedings seemed absurd to me. How could they possibly understand all this legal jargon and procedure? Regardless how many times the judge asked them through a translator if they understood, I was not convinced they did. At one point the judge asked if anything was weighing on their mind or had them so distracted that they couldn’t comprehend the proceedings. For me that was the height of the ludicrous. Did it occur to the court that trauma may be a factor – whether it was trauma from the journey, the reason for the journey, or because of these proceedings? Their attorneys were also asked if they believed their clients were competent to understand the proceedings. Could they really make that assessment?
As I sat and witnessed this false sense of due process and cruelty in our system, I expressed my distress to someone who was familiar with the courtroom proceedings. She explained that there are usually many more than seven defendants being tried at the same time and that the judge was much more humane during this hearing to which she credited to our contingent of 30+ observers. That alone was a reminder of the importance of bearing witness at these proceedings. I will return to the courtroom again and bear witness and I will encourage everyone I know to do the same. It is clear that we must remain vigilant and present to these dark and unjust policies that are being enacted by our government.
I weep for the seven young people and their experience with our system. I weep for us as American citizens, as these policies are not a reflection of our values. The fight continues for our nation’s true soul that respects and honors our shared humanity and justice.
Organize and work in solidarity with those who are on the frontlines of this crisis!