Sometimes while working within the immigration system, I have to remind myself who and what the real enemy is. When I started working with South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) almost six months ago, I carried a bias in my heart against ICE, ICE attorneys, immigration judges, etc. How could I ever have compassion for those actors who are responsible for deporting my friends, detaining children, and destroying families?
One of my friends from high school was deported during my first year at American University. It seemed that everything happened so fast. One day I was getting a call from a pastor who asked me to call the jail to see if he could visit our friend. The next day I was answering phone calls from friends who spoke little English, wondering if I could explain what was happening. A week or so later, I answered a call from Mexico, and to my surprise, my friend was on the phone. He was fine; he had been deported and made it home safely to his relatives in Guanajuato. (People who are deported do not always make it home safely.) We have since then lost touch, but I often remember the injustice experienced in that moment, the helplessness, and my anger at not being able to do anything. “He’s a good person; how can they do this?” I wondered. I hated the worker on the phone who had given me incorrect information when I had called the jail. I hated the ICE officers who had only arrested my friend because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was not the one they were looking for, but his brown skin and broken English made him suspect.
Because of my indirect experiences with the immigration system and direct experiences working within immigrant communities, after interviewing with South Florida JFON, it was clear in my mind that we were the good guys who were there to represent and protect low-income immigrants from the big bad ICE guys in immigration court.
Okay, that still feels mostly true, although some private attorneys exploit immigrants, as well. I met with one woman who was being charged $600 a month by an attorney while they were waiting for her next master calendar hearing, which was set for 2019–Imagine asking to be paid $600 a month to do basically nothing by a client who makes $300 a month as a farmworker. Another woman who attended our first mobile immigration legal services UAC clinic informed us that her son’s Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) visa had cost around $6,000 in legal fees.
I am lucky to work with pro bono attorneys who are able and willing to represent clients, many of whom are children, at no cost.
Several weeks ago, our executive director and attorney was waiting for a client in the immigration court lobby when Marcos* walked in with his older brother. A friend had driven them three hours from Fort Myers to his court hearing; they do not have a car. Marcos is an Unaccompanied “Alien” Child (UAC), who traveled to the United States alone and without documents. Marcos was afraid and believed that without an attorney, he would be deported that day.
Court language and the immigration system can be confusing for a college graduate who speaks the language the judge (or even the interpreter) speaks as a first language, but it is nearly impossible to comprehend for Marcos. Like many of our UACs, when Marcos is in court, his first (indigenous) language is not spoken by anyone else in the room.
Our attorneys agreed to represent Marcos (at least until we can find a pro bono attorney closer to Fort Myers), despite the 171 miles that separate us, opening up the possibility of an SIJ visa. I soon learned that the Marcos lives less than 10 minutes away from the retreat center where I would be staying during a missions conference, making it possible to set up a weekend appointment with him. When things just work out unexpectedly like that, I know that God is at work in our lives, despite the flaws of the human-made system.
My understanding of the immigration system began to further shift after going to immigration court with clients several times a month. One day our client was the last one waiting in the courtroom. After the immigration judge went off the record, we had a brief chance to talk with him and with the ICE attorney. As it turned out, they were just regular people, too. The judge told me he had lived in both Columbus, OH, and Washington, DC, too, and the ICE attorney joked about the alligators in the Everglades. It is hard to hate the “enemy” when they are just so human.
My indirect experiences with the immigration system made me sure that, at least for immigrants, court would be a terrible place. But I was wrong to an extent: It is true that court decisions can destroy lives; it is also true that good things happen in court. Decisions are made that benefit our South Florida JFON clients.
For example, a couple of months ago, a family court judge issued an order allowing a 15-year-old client’s uncle to take temporary custody of him, an order that allowed us to apply for an SIJ visa. An SIJ visa could lead to a work permit, green card, and ultimately citizenship for the child.
Yesterday, we were at immigration court with a twenty-year-old client who has applied for asylum. He is afraid of returning to El Salvador due to gang violence, especially after a relative and a 13-year-old neighbor were both killed by the gang and after he was personally extorted by the gang. His experiences may not be enough for him to be granted asylum, but fortunately he arrived before 2014, and the ICE attorney made the decision to exercise prosecutorial discretion, so the judge could administratively close his case, ensuring that, at least temporarily, ICE will not actively seek him out to deport him.
The reason I’m writing this blog is to point out that it was–and to an extent still is–easiest for me (us?) to blame the actors that are most tangible: the ICE officer who detains a child, the immigration judge who seems to care more about maintaining order than caring for God’s undocumented children, the private attorney charging a child $6,000 for his work in obtaining an SIJ visa, a service that (except for the Immigration-related fees that the clients have to pay) we provide for free, and even the congressmen who cannot seem to find a solution to immigration reform.
But as my experience with South Florida JFON has shown me, we are all just human beings who are doing our best in the world to make decisions that we believe are right. While I believe the Bible is clear on how we are supposed to treat the foreigners among us, and as a Christian I find it appalling when my brothers and sisters in Christ are less than welcoming to our immigrant neighbors, I have hope because I know that none of us are citizens of this world.
Hatred is real, but borders are social constructs. I have resolved to hate not the actors–the human beings who participate in the system–but to instead hate the structural sin built into the immigration system itself. I must learn to see God’s image in every person who forms the system, and by acting with compassion–or rather, by urging for change and justice in a compassionate way–not only will the immigration system be transformed, but the whole world will be, as well.
*Name has been changed.
GMF US-2, Class of 2015