Justice Delayed, Delayed, Delayed Some More … and Finally Denied
My heart breaks for the families from Central America detained for more than a year in Berks County Residential Center—and now denied a day in court
I am sad and frustrated to hear today that the Supreme Court of the United States chose not to hear a case involving women and children who came to this country in late 2015 from violence-plagued Central America seeking asylum.
Some of these women and their children have been detained for more than 400 days at the Berks County (Pa.) Residential Center, awaiting their day in court, which now will never come. Instead, it appears they will be deported shortly.
(This is a pretty good summation of the court decision today (CNN). And this, from the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, is a good catchup if you want to some background.)
I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t argue the constitutionality of their case or the ruling. But I am a person, and my heart goes out to these women and their children, who:
- Came here from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which these days all have huge problems with poverty and violence.
- Announced their intention to apply for asylum as soon as they encountered U.S. border agents. They said they had been targeted, by gangs, as single women with children in their home countries. There is no law against seeking asylum in this country. They didn’t do anything wrong.
- Sat in a low-security prison for the next year and a half—even though there were sponsors in the U.S. willing to house them until their cases could be sorted out.
- Raised children and battled despair for more than 400 days while being detained without charges.
I’ve been to vigils several times at the Berks facility over the past year. It usually looked a lot like the photo above—some of the 40 moms lined up along the fence, even when it was a lot colder than this nice November day. As you can see, we’re not talking bad hombres. They look like … moms with kids.
We had to stay across the street, off the detention center’s property, but there was always a speaker system. Musicians would play Latino pop and folk songs, we would wave to each other across the street as we both sang without hearing the other. When the music stopped, local religious leaders and people dedicated to immigration justice would take to the microphone. There were many words, in English and Spanish.
Words of encouragement. Words that they would not be forgotten. Words that they would one day be free.
I hope that at the time they were sustaining words, that they helped these moms to buoy their children’s and their own spirits. In the end, tonight, they feel like cruel words. Empty words. Untrue words.
Not untrue because they were ill-intentioned. No, crueler because the speakers meant them. They were just wrong. Like these words, once a point of pride for Americans, are increasingly untrue.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Increasingly, that door is shut. That way is closed.
Some of the most vulnerable people in the world packed up and made a run for it. They didn’t do it because America is cushy or so they could suck comfortably at the government teat. That isn’t why people leave everything behind and make a run for it. They did it because they feared for their safety and their children’s safety. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire says in her poem “Home”:
You only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
So they ran looking for a new home. And rather than find a home, they were detained and made vulnerable in a whole new way. Languishing in a prison, many became depressed. One of the women was raped by a guard, who was convicted and sentenced to 23 month in a different prison.
Some of these kids have now spent half their life in a prison, living on prison food. When local community leaders were able to meet with the moms, they didn’t ask for much, but they did ask that people send them some sugary cereal, as a treat for the kids. Oh, and underwear for themselves, because that isn’t provided when you are detained indefinitely by our government. Shampoo, too, because, yeah, the same.
Tonight I’m thinking of those women and their kids, lined up along the fence on a Sunday afternoon. And about how powerless this moment feels. And what more could be done—for them, by me, by us, for us.
I’m thinking about all the people running for their lives, and Shire’s unblinking truth.
no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side
with go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage -
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?
I grieve for these audacious, brave women and their children and what awaits them back in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala.
And alongside that, because I expect I’ll be here after they are long gone, I grieve for my country and its collective heart.
I get that not everyone in the world can come to the United States. I get that there need to be rules. I get why people think walls are solutions.
But I’ve been to Haiti and I’ve seen long, high walls along the main road outside Port au Prince, and I remember wondering, What could be so valuable in Haiti that someone built this wall to protect it, only to come around a corner and see a rubble-strewn yard and a goat munching on the weeds.
Walls are not creative things. Walls are about scarcity, about keeping, about making a fetish of what is mine in this world. And they’re not very effective. The Mongols simply took their horses around the Great Wall to conquer China. Democracy skipped over the one in Berlin. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built one almost 2,000 years ago to keep the Scots at bay. It’s easier to find a Scotsman almost anywhere in the world than to find a remnant of that wall.
There has been much talk of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year. Some people cheered for it. Others derided the idea as laughable, that America would never put up such a wall.
But what if the wall need not be 30 feet tall, with anti-climbing technology baked in, and cost $16 million a mile? What if the wall need not run along the Rio Grande and through the desserts of New Mexico and Arizona?
Truth is, there already is a wall. Part of it is just 3 1/2 feet tall, made of wooden posts mostly, in Leesport, Pennsylvania. It is backed by prison guards with rifles who depend on that small wall for their employment, and a court system that supports it, that encourages it. And this small wall, the facts show, it is enough to keep out people so at risk that they dropped everything but their children and made a run for it.
And still, amidst this despair—which, I must admit, surprised me with how hard it fell today—I remind myself that walls need not hold people back. Walls can support a roof. Walls can be shelter. And borders should not be walls. Borders should be thresholds. Borders should be opportunities. Borders—my edges, our edges, the nation’s edges, the world’s edges—should be where the growth is.
And still, tonight, the border is blocked. The border is stuck. It is closed.
Today, after freezing 40 families’ lives in an uncomfortable, unaccommodating and uncertain limbo for more than 400 days, the keepers of the wall turned them away.
I will go to Leesport soon, and I will not see these women and children along this short wall. As I imagine that, I think about the first lines of Shire’s poem, the ones you might have seen:
no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark.
And I grieve for these families—and for those who almost certainly will come after. I invite you to do the same.