MotM Update | They Are Shackled And Chained

Desert gusts tear at the flag outside of the United States District Court building. Tucson, Arizona; 17 May 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius

Desert gusts tear at the flag outside of the United States District Court building. Tucson, Arizona; 17 May 2019. ©Pamela Kerpius


21 May 2019

MotM Update
They Are Shackled And Chained

Mexican and Central American migrants were seated at the center of the courtroom, shackled and chained by the wrists, waists and ankles at the Operation Streamline deportation hearings at the United States District Court in Tucson, Arizona last week. The chain around their waists connects to the cuffs that bind their wrists, so they have difficulty putting on the headsets they need in order to hear the interpreter. The weight of the chains pushes down the waistband of their jeans that are still dusty and tattered from the desert so that the skin of their backs and backsides is exposed. They try to pull them up, or their shirt hems down, but the wrist bindings make it difficult. Some of them limp, still hurt. All of them shuffle within the shoulder-width of chain connecting either cuff at their ankles.

I observed this once and realized I was muttering outrages audibly from my seat in the back of the courtroom. The last time I attended Streamline hearings, in July 2017, defendants were not in chains; this has changed, and the power of this disgrace did not diminish as the week wore on. One migrant I follow in Italy, Prince (Sierra Leone; story forthcoming), texted to wish me a happy visit to my home country, the United States––enjoy! Except for the sea, the journey stories on MotM don’t vary much from the ones you’ll hear from migrants crossing Mexico to the U.S. I visited a local shelter where a man under asylum protection told me that to get here it was by some combination of bus or car and on foot; he departed Honduras, was trafficked across Guatemala, then Mexico, encountered theft, dehydration, inadequate shelter or sleeping on the street; threat of violence (and sexual abuse for women), and the threat of death by traffickers from cartels stationed just before the Mexico-U.S. border. The traffickers at that checkpoint carried automatic weapons and said to him and his one-year-old baby, “Pay or die.” His baby girl smiles up from the stroller unaware of it all; I hear him, and look down and giggle with the kid.

He is an “OTM,” a migrant from anywhere “other than Mexico”; most Mexican people will be deported immediately, but if it is their second apprehension they are processed as felons and serve months or longer in prison. Why keep immigrants in prison in the U.S. if we don’t want them here to begin with? A lawyer tells me one private prison contractor receives more than $20 million per month from the U.S. government for its services to Streamline; a colossal anecdote if there was one. “They are ashamed and scared of being labeled as criminals when they are only coming here for work,” another defense lawyer told me. Migrants get emotional, not understanding what’s going on; many have had no education. They are afraid, she said.

Magistrate Judge Bruce MacDonald knows this and gave warmth to each of them as best as he was able within the setting’s clinical efficiency. He clarifies himself when he’s misunderstood. He is humble. He apologizes if there is a technical glitch with the translation headsets. He is trying to make them comfortable. I asked a different judge on Tuesday, what psychological effect does the indignity of this process have on you personally when you preside over it for so long with no change? He did not answer, but another defense lawyer, also, incidentally, of Mexican descent, did: he clenched his forehead and fought tears. Later, a woman in a prison jumpsuit and chains stood next to him at a hearing; he whispered past on his way out, “Always upsetting to see a woman in handcuffs, especially one that looks like my grandma.” My boyfriend who is a German expatriate in Italy doesn’t know the nuance and history of these proceedings, and I like explaining it to him across the pixels of FaceTime calls outside the courthouse in the heat––90 degrees, 97 degrees, 100––because it is difficult to layout their logistics and to admit the privilege I have behind these conceits, but it makes me aware; outsiders will always show you what you cannot see. I wondered, what would come of these criminal hearings if we valued the language of our neighbors enough to be able to speak with them. What perceived threat would fall away if we knew what each other were saying? Friday is known as “Streamlight” because of a lower volume of people to hear; the hearings are moved upstairs to a smaller courtroom and the dedicated Streamline room on the second floor is replaced with the swearing in of new U.S. citizens. There are cheers, and testimonies of people related and not declaring their congrats and tearful refrains, “We are a nation of immigrants.” It is a moving redemption of dignity in a courtroom where people are otherwise only in chains––and this, even if they are forced to watch President Trump feign well wishes on a prerecorded address with his usual face suggesting he is in the midst of a difficult bowel movement.

From last week, here are the journey stories of Mustapha, Almameh and Foday––each live on the site now. I write you from New York City, where I am for the week on assignment for unrelated work, before returning to Arizona again. See you next week!