“I have done nothing wrong.”
She sang in an nervous canon, strangely steady and sure as the notes of her native Spanish betrayed her narrow second tongue. Shackled, with eyes locked on the magistrate seated above her, above us all, her sharp features etched themselves in my mind. Surrounded by lawyers in suits flurrying at her departure from script, she waited as the entire court room watched. Many, I'm sure, held their breath.
More than sixty men in chains waited as the judge droned on, “Do you understand the nature of the charges against you?”
The woman had been apprehended on the United States border in the Sonoran desert three days earlier. All statistics indicate that she likely had traveled on foot in harsh terrain for at least five days. It is almost certain that in those five days she had little water and less food. It is almost certain that she had been raped.
“You have been charged with the petty offense of illegal entry into the United States. You crossed the border where there was no port of entry so as to avoid inspection by a federal agent. Do you understand the nature of the charges against you?”
Her lawyer whispered in her hear and then spoke to the judge. Her face was not visible to the gallery, but must have shown confusion. The United States Marshal snickered.
She was led back to her seat and six men were called up in her place as six had been called before her.
This is Operation Streamline, one of the U.S. Government's responses to the thousands of migrants crossing our borders every year. This particular iteration happened on the afternoon of Friday, April 29 in Tucson, Arizona, but some version of it happens in 3 or 4 cities near our southwestern border every day. Between 60 and 100 people recently caught by Border Patrol, most with no criminal backgrounds, are brought to court each morning to meet with a lawyer to discuss their legal options. Then, in the afternoon, they are paraded before a judge six or more at a time and asked to plead guilty, waiving their right to a trial. The day that I witnessed this, nearly everyone who had been charged for the first time was sentenced to time served and deported.
The maximum sentence for the misdemeanor is a $5000 fine and six months in prison.
When I first walked into the courtroom, I saw all of the people sitting quietly and waiting to begin. It wasn't until ten minutes later that a young man was pulled from the group and I realized everyone was in chains. Everyone had their wrists shackled together and to their feet. In this moment, I was overwhelmed with this perversion of power and how exclusive that our people and our government have allowed our nation to become. I wondered where Jesus would have been sitting.
I don't claim to have any or all of the answers but I know that criminalizing men and women for crossing a line doesn't feel like justice. I know that I believe in and strive to follow a God that has put me and all people in a world where there is enough for everyone and I know that I wanted to hug each and every soul that walked out of that courtroom to be sent back to the beginning of their journey.
After a whispered conversation, Desi Maria was led back to the microphone and after trying to explain that she had crossed the border out of necessity, that it was her last option for a decent life or a life at all, she plead guilty to illegal entry and was sentenced to deportation.
I invite you to respond as you please. I also invite you to read a Berkeley review of Operation Streamline by clicking on this sentence.
Pray for Desi Maria. Pray for my mom. Pray for your mom. Pray for all moms. I love you, Mom.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. - 1 John 3:11, 16-18