Dear Mr. President: These People Are Not Criminals
Dear Mr. President,
In August, your administration declared that the focus for deportations would be on those convicted of serious crimes.
Yesterday, I witnessed hearings for 75 people charged with felonies. The whole proceeding took just a little over an hour.
The venue was the Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona—room 2013, courtroom 2A, the “Special Proceedings” room—to be exact.
When I entered the courtroom, the defendants were already there. They filled one-third of the seating area usually occupied by the general public. They also filled what is usually the jury box. In addition, six of them stood before microphones in front of the bench.
The six who stood before the bench had not accepted plea bargain agreements. They elected, instead, to stand trial.
Then, the remaining defendants were brought before the bench, seven at a time. Each stood before a microphone, some of them visibly shaking. Behind each defendant stood a public defender. Each defendant wore a headset so they could hear the Spanish translation as charges against them were being read and they were asked to enter a plea.
All of the 75 defendants were charged with the same “crime”: being in this country without the proper documents.
I listened closely as the charges were read. My hearing isn’t the best, and the judge spoke quickly and softly. From what I heard, the only “crime” committed by any of the 75 was to be in the country without proper documentation.
Of the 75, as I recollect, 6 refused plea bargain arrangements, choosing to stand trial at a later date. Charges were dismissed against one man because he was a juvenile at the time of arrest. Three were from Honduras. All the rest, from Mexico. Seven, maybe eight, were women. All were shackled, hand and foot.
The sentences handed down ranged from time served—one to three days—to ninety, one-hundred-twenty, to one-hundred-fifty days in jail. American jail.
Defendants were given the opportunity to speak. Only a handful did so.
One man clearly thought he was being charged with driving without a license. The judge patiently explained that he was being charged with being in the country illegally—a felony.
One woman challenged the date of her arrest. Again, the judge patiently explained that the court was on solid ground because of the language…”on, or about…” Only she heard the Spanish translation of the judge’s remarks. Who knows what was really said, or heard?
One man, when given the opportunity to speak, begged the judge for a more lenient sentence. The judge, again, with utmost patience, explained that there was once a time when judges were given discretion in sentencing, but that those days were long gone. His hands were tied.
I tried to make eye contact with each defendant as they shuffled out of the courtroom, struggling as they were with handcuffs and ankle shackles.
Some smiled, put their hands in prayer position, and nodded. Others hung their heads in shame—especially the women.
The ones that weigh heaviest on my heart tonight are those whose eyes were too dead to meet mine, too filled with confusion and despair to comprehend that someone cared what happened to them.
Your order was to deport criminals. These people are not criminals. This court proceeding happens three times a week here in Tucson, Arizona. Just thought you should know.
The Reverend Diane Dowgiert