Published on March 20th, 2014 | by Daniel Rahe2
Shoes That Never Fit
I can recall in vivid detail the exact moment I became a believer in immigration reform.
I was seated in the back of a county courtroom in Colorado, just north of Denver, listening to case after case of heartbreaking family dysfunction. The hearings follow alphabetical order. I’m usually near the end of the list.
There is a misconception about the Denver area, that it must be in the mountains if it is indeed The Mile High City — or at least in the foothills. It is not. It is situated on plain stretching out to an endless horizon where the sky meets the ground in a dingy haze like the yellowed margins of sun-damaged copier paper. The courthouse is a stark, severe building on the border of a kingdom of coyotes and prairie dogs, quiet and hopeless, except for the sounds of passing semi-trailer tires and the distant squealing of car alarms on shitty Hondas. Early in the morning, there is a light dew on everything, but the air is dry and brisk.
As you navigate the massive parking lot amongst the morning crowd, you become more and more aware that no one is happy to be at the county courthouse. In the lobby, there are large screens that match case numbers to courtrooms. I found my number, and proceeded past attorneys in bad J.C. Penney shoes up a set of stairs to await my appearance before the magistrate.
If no one is happy to be at the courthouse, those who show up for Family Law issues — divorce, custody, visitation, child support, protective care, etc. — are openly wrecked, with fatigue-reddened eyes. Jaws are clenched, and nerves frayed. Poorly knotted ties. Out-of-fashion dresses. Ill-fitting slacks. Sometimes you think you can almost taste the collective shame in the air, and you hope for a breeze to sweep it away each time the doors to the foyer open. That hope is futile. [pullquote]I am a firm believer that until you have hoped for mercy or utterly depended upon the compassion of others, you can’t understand justice[/pullquote]
The door behind the Court Clerk opened, and the magistrate walked in.
He was bald, and more earnest in his bearing than I would have liked. I wanted to be processed by a bored bureaucrat, rubber-stamped in a soulless, impersonal procedure. Instead, each of the two dozen cases represented by the roomful of awkwardly “spruced up” adults would be given thoughtful attention in full view of dozens of weary strangers. All any of us really wanted was to have the Thing that had brought us here, the Thing that had dominated our every waking thought and kept us up at night, to be to be met with a swift, merciful reckoning, as if such things could ever be so simply settled.
I am a firm believer that until you have hoped for mercy or utterly depended upon the compassion of others, you can’t understand justice, nor should you be entrusted with its keeping. I have been at the mercy of others — physically abused by my parents, struggled with mental health (or the lack of it), been jailed, supplemented minimum wage jobs with crime, fought alcohol abuse, been a negligent father and a worse employee. As a result, I understand the consequences of privilege and of failure. I know what it means to have nothing left but gratitude, to know that thankfulness was the only connection to whatever remained of my dignity.
But when the Diaz family [names changed] took the stand that day, I was unprepared for how shallow my hard-earned understanding of justice suddenly seemed.
Julia took a seat before the bench first. The magistrate asked her to lower the microphone to her face, because she spoke so timidly.
Julia had legal status, and a three- or four-year-old daughter, Maria. The father apparently had quite a record of criminal misbehavior, was not paying child support, and had been completely absent since the girl’s birth. Since then, Julia had accepted the marriage proposal of a young man named Anthony who did not have legal status. He worked several jobs in order to afford moving her and Maria to a nice apartment in a safe part of town. He cared for Maria as if she was his own child.
According to police files read by the magistrate, Maria’s father had recently shown up at Julia’s front door, for the first time in years. Things became heated, and Julia called Anthony at work and asked him to come home, because Maria’s father wouldn’t leave. Anthony arrived and, according to his testimony, calmly asked the other man to go home. An altercation ensued, and both men were arrested.
Now Anthony sat beside Julia at the microphone, listening to the magistrate recount the case details.
What I saw next made my heart pound and my ears ring. Anthony was going to be deported. I don’t recall all the elements of the family’s issues before the court that day, or what it all had to do with his immigration status, but from the handful of armed officers gathered at the courtroom side door, I deduced it was quite serious.
I watched Maria and Julia say last good-byes to Anthony before he was handcuffed and taken away. [pullquote]The family maintained composure and dignity in front of the packed courtroom, but their faces flashed with plain recognition[/pullquote]The family maintained composure and dignity in front of the packed courtroom, but their faces flashed with plain recognition, betraying the finality of a long heartbreak — the moment souls suddenly fucking snap in half, when every ounce of mental and spiritual strength is called upon but fails, when everything that made the world safe collapses. So much hope left Anthony and Julia in that last embrace, they couldn’t contain the void, and I know because some hope was sucked out of everyone else in the room.
My own case was, in comparison, not petty, but very, very survivable. I just needed to secure the legal right to fly my son from Denver to Seattle to stay at my house during breaks from school. I was heard, and eventually successful in my request.
Once dismissed, I walked out into the foyer and saw Maria standing in a corner with various County staff workers. I was impressed that she was standing. I thought about the proverb that says we shouldn’t judge someone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I thought about how hard I had fought and how much others had given so that I could arrive at a “normal” life, and I wondered why anyone with a human fucking soul would ever condemn the choices that led Julia, Anthony, and Maria to this moment. Personally, I have made worse choices. I knew then that there was something deeper in all of this than interpretations of justice or fairness, because, even with all the hard roads I have been down, I would never know what it is like to walk a mile as Anthony, Julia, or Maria. Never. Not even a step.
When we talk about the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s tideflats as if it is merely an expression of criminal justice (when it is, in fact, a civil offense detention facility — not criminal — to enhance assurance that occupants will comply with immigration orders), and when we talk smugly of “rule of law,” we are ignoring the travesty of flawed law and overlooking the gangrenous mentality of economic elitism that fuels our immigration policy. But when you know that there are thousands of Anthonys, Julias, and Marias going through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement system every week, the Northwest Detention Center becomes a symbol of human suffering we ourselves will never comprehend from the self-righteous insularity of our safe, easy little worlds.
We have private corporations that make enormous profit by imprisoning immigrants, and one of those prisons is within Tacoma’s city limits. This is unimpeachable evidence of failed immigration policy, yet “Failed Policy” is an easy term to shrug off, because we assume someday things will get better.
It has long been a tenet of human interaction that you can cross a line on a map and suddenly have different rights or no rights at all, but we never question the humanity, justice, or arbitrariness of that distinction, nor wrestle with what immigration really means — instead, we enforce and enshrine policies that clearly aren’t working.
As I returned to my vehicle after that morning court hearing, I searched the parking lot for any sign of Maria and Julia. I did not see them, but I tried to imagine them leaving without Anthony. Feeling unforgivably fortunate, I called my son to ask what he wanted for lunch. He requested Dairy Queen, and, after the things I had seen, I could not deny him. I wondered when Anthony would be able to take his adopted daughter out for ice cream again.