My First Encounter with a Courtroom

On Tuesday, May 31st, we went to the Tucson courthouse. Carol and John told us that this would be for our personal learning experience rather than something that would be in our film. Our field trip took us to Operation Streamline. 

I won’t bore you with the facts that you can lookup online, but I want to tell you about my experience.

This was my first time being inside a courthouse. Of course I have seen some courts while binge watching Law and Order. But this was my first time physically being in a courthouse.  I read through a Most Wanted list while I waited outside the courtroom. Freaky. 

A sketch of Operation Streamline by Lawrence Gipe.
A sketch of Operation Streamline by Lawrence Gipe.

When I walked into the courtroom, I could smell the stench of sweat and filth. I could hear the sound of chains in a never ending chorus. As I looked around, I saw rows on rows of people chained by their feet, waist, and ankles. 

I sat down next to my partner in crime, A.J., and we made eye contact and shared a brief smile, not knowing what we we were about to witness. I don’t know what came over me, but before anything had even started, tears were streaming down my face. I looked over to A.J again and he whispered, “Already?!” We both laughed a little and he offered to go get me Kleenex but the trial was about to start. 

All of the migrants had headphones in so that they could hear the translator who repeated the judges words in Spanish. 

As I listened to the judge, I understood most of what he was saying, but was left confused for various parts. I thought back to being told that many Mexicans do not even have an eighth grade education. If I could barely understand with my advanced education, I couldn’t imagine trying to understand the court system of a foreign country. The judge asked them if they didn’t understand to stand up. I wanted to stand up. But like them, I was paralyzed with the fear of looking stupid, out of place, like I didn’t belong. 

The judge asked them to raise their hand if their ear pieces weren’t working, but their hands were chained. 

One lawyer asked the judge if her clients could go first as she had places to be. 

Migrants went up, five by five, to answer questions. 

A woman went up, head down. When the Judge asked her if she was a US citizen, she let out a regretful sigh and answered no.

My heart sank as more tears ran down my cheeks. 

I heard the judge list cities of where these people had crossed. I heard Nogales. I heard Sassabe. I heard Tuscon. All places that we had been and had become familiar with. All places where I couldn’t imagine being out in the desert for more than a morning. 

After each set of migrants had individually answered the judges questions, they were sent out of the courtroom. I saw their faces and thought of all the people I had interacted with at the Comedor. People I had danced with, laughed with, played games with, talked to, the stories I had heard. It all came back. 

I felt as if I was in a some sort of nightmare.

When I came back to the realization that this was real life, I noticed I hadn’t stopped crying. I also realized that it had been over an hour since the trial had started. I looked around and saw that I was the only one crying in the entire room. I felt like a fool.

We left about halfway through the list of migrants. A lawyer came out and asked us if we had questions. Yes, I had questions but I didn’t know where to begin. 

The question that I was able to formulate was why they couldn’t say that they were seeking asylum from the drug wars going on or that their families were starving back home.  There had to be another way, right? Instead of having criminal charges put on your record and being sent to jail? 

His answer kind of confused me. It was something along the lines of it would be a different process, in a different court and there wouldn’t be enough evidence. 

Someone else in the group asked how often he sees the same people getting charged again. This time his answer was crystal clear. “It depends on how hungry their families are or the condition that they are in, whether or not it’s safe.”

I cried much of the way home and during the reflection that we did once we were home. After what seemed like eternity, I took a nap, hoping that my dreams would be more peaceful than what I had just experienced. 

I wish I could just take a nap and when I wake up, my troubles and the troubles of my brothers and sisters would have perished. But sadly, that’s not the way things work and I’m still trying to figure out why things are the way they are.

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