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Final Post — Angry Rabbi

01/29/2019 04:28:44 PM


Here they are.  The ones who didn’t make it.

For all the suffering that we encounter in the Exodus story, it gives us a (mostly) happy ending.  Moses confronts Pharaoh, plagues punish Egypt, slaves get free.  It is, after all, a book of redemption.

As such, it doesn’t dwell too much on the folks that don’t make it.  We know that Moses’ parents saved him by sending him down the river in a basket.  What we don’t know is how many would-be Moseses were not similarly blessed.  What we don’t know is how many didn’t make it.

Sitting in a courtroom in Tucson, I see the ones who didn’t make it. 

Well before the Trump administration came to power, Operation Streamline came to Tucson.

Started in 2005, Operation Streamline is a joint program of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.  Rather than treat border crossings as administrative matters, Operation Streamline classified them as criminal matters – and, obviously, began the process of treating immigrants as criminals.

Of course, fear of terrorism was supposedly the driving force behind this effort, but as an anti-terror measure it’s been an abject failure.  780,000 refugee seekers have been processed in this manner since 9/11. Of that group, a total of three have been suspected of terrorism.

But the risk of criminalization remains.  If you enter the US without papers and are caught by border patrol, you are charged with a misdemeanor — “Entering Without Inspection.”  The charge is so common that it’s given rise to an acronym that describes both the charge and the immigrants: EWI, pronounced in bureaucratic shorthand as eewee.  While EWI is a misdemeanor, re-entering after deportation is a felony.

Family separation, then, is an outgrowth of Operation Streamline.  The criminalization and dehumanization of migrants begins here, and ends with children in armed camps.  Any means necessary.

Certainly, by the time they arrive in this courtroom, the migrants have undergone a brutal ordeal.  Their desert journey comes to an end when they’re detained by border patrol.  They are treated as dangerous criminals, stripped naked and subject to a body cavity search, often by officials who speak not a single word they can understand.  While Latin American cultures are known for modesty, the women undergoing strip searches have never been seen naked by any other adult, including their husbands. 

Stripped, searched, and processed, 75 migrants will enter this courtroom in groups of 17.  As a door to the courtroom opens, you hear the sound of chains before you see them.  Each migrant is shackled in a five-point restraint, complete with leg bands and handcuffs linked to a bellyband by a 15-inch chain.  The image of a five-foot, hundred pound Guatemalan woman, bearing twenty pounds of shackles, is as absurd as it is infuriating.

I imagine many of us are prepared to hate the presiding judge, but he is not brutal in carrying out his duties.  He repeats the same instructions to each migrant, lets them know a guilty plea will free them back into Mexico but leave them with a criminal record, makes sure every migrant understands and responds in their own language.  Everyone, ultimately, understands.  Some ask to enter the asylum process.  Everyone else, faced with the prospect of a trial at an unspecified date with almost no chance of success, pleads Guilty.

The tedium of hearing the same words over and over, and the same responses back, cannot be overstated.  One of my colleagues begins a word puzzle.  I sketch out a drawing of the oversized justice seal on the wall behind the judge, an eagle clutching olive branches in one claw, arrows in another.

But there’s something sinister soaked into our boredom.  What’s happening in front of us is what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil.”  The process is orderly and the judge is kind, but the outcome is just as brutal.  In just under two hours, we witness the deportation of 68 people. 

Traveling with KBI, our group gets an audience with the judge.  As I said, he was more than polite to all the migrants.  He was kind, courteous, patient.  He speaks to us in mannered tones about the three branches of government.  He doesn’t make the law, he reminds us.  That’s not the job of the judge.  He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.

We’re allowed time for questions.  What should I say to this man?  This nice man who every few weeks takes a turn carrying out awful laws.

What would you say?

After my colleagues ask a couple of questions, I swallow hard and raise my hand.  I tell him that if these folks have to go through this process with anyone, he’s probably the best of the bunch.  But I ask if he believes that being in the United States without documentation should be a crime.

He says it doesn’t matter what he thinks.  That is the law.

At this point, I should probably stop talking.  That would be the civil thing to do.  But I think of all the people we’ve met.  In the comedor.  On the street.  In the shelter.  I think of the detainees I visit in Boston, grown men who cry because they know they’ll never see their children.  I think of the Bible, abandoned in an American desert.

I press on.  I care about what he thinks, I tell him.  He tells me I should run for office.  That strikes me as a cop-out. 

“You’re a public official,” I say.  “You have the power.  Your opinion matters.”

By this point, the judge and I are not the only ones speaking.  My colleagues are shouting over me, tell me to leave it alone, he’s not going to answer, let someone else have a turn.

Maybe they’re right.  In the moment, I don’t think they’re right.

“Is he a rabbi,” I hear the judge ask as I get up mid meeting and leave the courtroom. 

Yes he is, the judge is told.

“Well he’s an angry rabbi.”

I’ll only learn later that one of my colleagues replies, “a lot of us are angry rabbis.”

But as the courtroom door closes behind me, I don’t know that.

Hot-faced and panting, I wander the concrete halls of the courthouse, a bitter cocktail of fury and disappointment and embarrassment brewing in my guts.  Did I shame my colleagues?  Myself? 

For four days, I have laughed and prayed and spoken broken Spanish with dozens of souls, souls with stories and sorrows and hopes.  They are stories like my family’s stories.  My family, who is now housed and fed and safe in this country, who is now white in this country.

And, knowing all that I know and seeing all that I’ve seen, when my white face confronted the white face of the judge, how should I have acted?  What should I have done?

What would you have done?

What will you do?

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782