The power of presence

The power of presence
Krista Dutt, Program Coordinator for Chicago and Church Relations Associate, Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes

I have often heard the life of Job upheld as an example. However, my experience as an immigration court watcher has allowed me to enter into the perspective of Job’s friends.

These friends heard that Job’s life was in a hard place and so they went to sit with him (Job 2:11-13). Scripture says they didn’t speak, waiting until Job broke seven days of silence, but the power of their presence during that time is clear.

Sometimes the most we can do is show up.

As a court watcher on behalf of the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, I sit in a courtroom in Chicago, Illinois, while immigrants from detention centers around the country are teleconferenced in to have a hearing before the judge. Many immigrants appear before a judge in this manner because most immigrant detention centers are located in remote areas while most judges are in big cities. Of the cases I have witnessed, only about 10 percent of the immigrants are represented by an attorney.

Recently, while I was in a visiting judge’s court room, he told one immigrant, “President Trump sent me to Chicago from my home to make sure your case was heard. There is a huge backlog of cases. That is why I am here. You are lucky that we got to your case in this manner.”

Showing up in the courtroom has allowed me to see the complexities around immigrant detention centers and the legal process in a number of ways. The current court backlog is at a record 610,000 cases, with some waiting years for their case to be heard.

One detained immigrant was asked a routine question about entering “without inspection” (without legal papers) with the judge expecting him to say “yes.” Instead, he said “no.”  He had entered with inspection through Douglas, Arizona, and the government had charged him wrongly. The judge called for an extension on the case due to this mistake but the detained immigrant said, “No, I can’t handle this place anymore – deport me!”

In another case, a detained immigrant’s family had traveled from three hours away to catch a glimpse of their loved one through a television screen. The awkward, touching, monitored conversation they were granted after the hearing was both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

One man tried to explain the systemic violence that would lead to his death if he returned to his native country, to which the judge kept replying, “Well, your family must be doing something to incite this.”

Some judges seem to struggle to find a way to both uphold the law and show compassion as they hear the stories and feel the pain of the immigrants that come before them. Other judges appear to be disregarding the law or, at the least, applying it inconsistently.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zopher showed up to be witnesses to the suffering of their friend, Job. Court watchers show up to be present to the strain that is the immigration process. Data is collected and tracked to help other immigrants who go through the process and to keep the courts accountable.

Urge your members of Congress to oppose policies that criminalize immigrants. If you would like to explore becoming a court watcher in the Chicago metro area, contact Krista Dutt; in the New York City area, contact Gregoria Flores Nunez.