Different people come into our lives for different reasons – or so it is said. I do know that I have read in more than a few writings that the universe, in its mysterious ways, sends people to cross our paths so that we may develop, learn, expand. Unbeknown to themselves or ourselves, they assist us in finding some new meaning or new perspective regarding our existence. We may unknowlingly return the favor.
Often the reason we bump into a certain individual is not particularly obvious. However, over time we realize that the particular soul provided us with a perspective that affirms our beliefs, or tore down those beliefs to give us another try, or gave us new meaning regarding our place in this world in a way that we had never considered. One such gentleman – and he truly is – walked into my life.
Coyotes and Treks Across the Desert
Roberto came to America with the help of a coyote. No, not the four-legged variety that we know as a stealthy creature that often hunts or scavenges in the darkness of night. Because of those sneaky characteristics, “coyote” has become the term used for those humans engaged in smuggling people to the U.S. border. These human coyotes are almost always from Mexico, as are those seeking a new life in the U.S. However, citizens from Guatamala, El Salvador, and other nations to the south are represented as well.
For thousands of dollars per man, woman, or child, these coyotes lead their naive clients through remote and treacherous landscapes, and, if all goes well, ultimately to the United States border. Sadly, more than a few have not been able to endure the cruel journey and their bones now lie in arid Mexican deserts and boulder-strewn mountain passes. Nothing short of a miracle, Roberto somehow survived the sojourn, crossed the border, and wound up in California.
Hard Labor Due to Lack of Ambition?
For nearly ten years after crossing the border, Roberto earned a living as a fruit picker in the strawberry fields around the small towns in the valleys of California. Picking strawberries under the blazing sun in ninety-degree heat, the body always stooped over to reach the low-growing fruit, is not a cushy job. It’s also one of those jobs that most every U.S. citizen refuses to take. Every time I pass by one of those fields and see migrant workers bent down picking the fruit, my own body aches and my mind feels for the daily hardship and punishment that they endure to keep their families alive.
This is hard, hard labor. But for a man who had never learned to read or write to keep body and soul together, Roberto was content. More than content. This made me wonder about his ambition, or lack thereof. To me, a man with little or no ambition is hard to fathom. But who am I to judge? Maybe Roberto’s ambition is merely to have a job. Maybe he felt, with his particular condition, that he was blessed just to be able to find work and earn money.
Can It Get Any Worse?
Roberto's story doesn't end there. Aside from being illiterate, Roberto is deaf and mute. And, to add to a life that already had the potential for disappointment or failure, his status was "illegal alien." For those not familiar, the term “illegal alien” does not refer to a monster from outer space. In immigration law “illegal alien” is someone who is undocumented or someone who does not have the legal status to live and work in the United States.
Raiding Strawberry Fields
More than a few times, Roberto would be doing his job, only to look up and find himself alone in a strawberry field surrounded by immigration authorities. Roberto’s illegal co-workers had already fled, alerted by the government vehicle sirens that Roberto could not hear.
Confronted with a deaf mute person who didn't even know American Sign Language (Amsilan or ASL), and their obligation to the law as well (Miranda and other constitutional concerns), agents would usually leave him alone out of pure frustration. We used to joke about this with Roberto and his wife; but the thought of a dozen government agents, coming out of nowhere, surrounding you with guns drawn, can only be terribly frightening.
Immigration raids occur frequently in those fields even though it is generally known that many workers from Mexico and other central American countries crawl across the border to labor on U.S. farms. Many farming enterprises, large and small, depend on these illegal workers to tend and harvest their crops. This may be why, at times, immigration officials or local law enforcement agencies sound alarms before descending upon the fields. This could be a way to give the undocumented time to flee so that they can come back another day to resume their vital work.
Not So Sweet Honeymoon
After many years in the fields, Roberto met and fell in love with an American citizen. She is a lovely and very kind-hearted woman. They were married. As an adjunct benefit of the love affair, Roberto sought to legalize his status and he approached an immigration office. Well, an immigration office usually would not welcome an illegal person with open arms in a situation such as this. The charge of immigration officials in this country, especially under the Obama administration, is to “report and deport.” Some statistics show that Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other President in U.S. history. So, even though Roberto may have qualified to receive citizen status due to his marriage to a U.S. citizen, the immigration office viewed his claims as spurious.
So, they served him with a Notice of Hearing for Removal document. Essentially this is a formal notice that the government is going to start the removal process to get rid of an illegal and banish the individual forever from the United States. Though he could not read them, Roberto knew that the papers that were handed to him were not exactly an open invitation to become a new citizen. I met him soon thereafter. One morning he walked into my office in San Francisco, along with his lovely wife, and handed me those documents.
Since he could not speak, nor hear, nor understand any standard form of communication, his wife Lydia had to interpret for him. I wasn’t sure about their method of communication. It seemed to be an augmented or customized sign language, or perhaps something entirely contrived by the couple. Lydia would make some gesture that only Roberto could understand. I believed that since immigration officials could not communicate effectively with him regarding his rights and the charges against him, they could not legally detain him. Perhaps this is why they just served him with some papers regarding his deportation and left it at that, rather than taking him into custody, which could have complicated any future efforts they might have wanted to take to force him out of the country.
Just married, and on the brink of deportation from a country that he had been pleased to call his home for at least a decade, Roberto was seeking legal help. When he walked into our office, he was wearing what to him was his Sunday best. He looked as if he were an extra off the lot of an old western movie – the boots, the shirt, the hat, the whole kit. It was as if Clint Eastwood of the old “spaghetti westerns” had come galloping into our lobby. Thankfully, he had no guns, just great, warm smiles from him and his wife.
Roberto has broad shoulders and stands straight. His appearance perhaps does not belie the pleasant personality he possesses. In spite of his past travail and present circumstances, he seems content that he has a life in America. Perhaps because of the hardship he has endured due to his communication limitations, he has developed the strength to ward off the despair that usually accompanies hardship or difficulty. He passes through life lightly.
Roberto chiseled an important message on my heart. People deal with hardships and difficulties in many different ways. Some of us freak out or panic when faced with what seems to be insurmountable obstacles. Some would be resigned and take a defeatist attitude. What’s a defeatist attitude? That’s when you accept all the crap that’s happening to you and you sigh and you say, “That’s life, what can I do?” This type of mindset is very heavy both mentally and physically. It weighs down on you. You go around with this very negative attitude while carrying too much needless baggage. But, Roberto, despite bearing many problems, didn’t let those burdens decrease his light step through life.
A Wink and a Nod
At the outset, we knew full well the difficulties Roberto's case would present. A fundamental right, defined by the Constitution, requires that a defendant fully understands the allegations and the general proceedings put forth in a U.S. court. But, an ASL interpreter didn't quite fill the bill. Roberto never had any formal education. His informal signing consisted of some gestures and hand signs: A wink here and a nod there – and always his smile. Only Lydia really understood him with their home-made signals. I supposed their love for each other made it easier for them to communicate with each other.
Days In Court
Our legal team wondered if the legal system could even handle such a case. Among ourselves it was averred that no trial could proceed without competent interpretation for Roberto. It appeared that the judge was rather inured to the special circumstances of Roberto’s case and more interested in clearing his docket. Most immigration judges’ calendars are very congested.
This congestion has caused a directive from the chief immigration judge in Washington to expedite cases always and any way. If the judge had just declared Roberto incompetent to stand trial, he could have easily cleared one more case off his load, and Roberto probably would have been allowed to avoid deportation. But, the judge wanted to move on the case. His plate was full and he had many more lined up – I had checked his docket. He was determined to try this case and under his direction it looked like the government was determined to remove Roberto from the U.S.
The government’s iron hand was felt in its every motion. The government attorney didn’t give a damn if the person he was prosecuting had next to no idea about his legal situation. For him, this was just another “alien” that needed to be tossed out. He didn’t care if this guy picked the inexpensive strawberries that he had eaten that morning because no other U.S citizen wanted to do the back-breaking work. He didn’t care that Roberto was illegally under-paid. He didn’t care that Roberto’s extreme working conditions violated U.S laws. He didn’t care that Roberto was actually contributing to the U.S economy with his extremely cheap labor.
An immigration court room can be extremely dehumanizing. The entire deportation process treats people as mere cattle being herded in and out of the court room and cowed onto a bus back to the border. Sadly, once those people are no longer on U.S. soil, they are just dropped off and left without food, water, or any necessities for survival. The whole situation could almost be compared to the administrative ways the Nazi Party got the unwanted onto railway cars with a final stop at a concentration camp.
It almost seemed impossible to go to court with a client such as Roberto. The resounding question was: How do you defend someone who has but a scant knowledge of what’s happening? How do you communicate the complexities of a removal hearing under our arcane U.S. immigration laws to someone who has never set a foot inside a schoolroom?
Our legal team was determined not to the let the government, or its judges, railroad his case. Each time the government moved to go forward, we objected. We were steadfast that Roberto must comprehend everything about his accusation and his trial. Just because of his handicaps, he should not be deprived of a fair trial. Each time the judge scheduled one of several trials to deport Roberto to Mexico, we objected and resolved to take the case to higher courts, with the Supreme Court being a possible destination.
Not a Perfect Solution
We kept objecting to the government's lack of efforts or results in providing competent interpretation for him. We conducted our own research. We were having our own difficulties understanding Roberto. An expert interpreter who was also deaf and mute, known as a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), was finally pulled in. He came all the way from the East Coast to interpret for Roberto.
The CDI would then interpret to an ASL interpreter who would then pass meaning on to the court and Roberto's advocates. Finally, Roberto's lawyers and the courts were satisfied that he fully comprehended what was happening to him. Though this was a rather clumsy solution, it worked and Roberto averred that he understood his situation.
Examining a Life
We proceeded to show the life that Roberto had managed to build during ten years of difficulty. His wife is plagued with health problems and depends on Roberto for many of her day-to-day requirements. They have a place in a small community, but neither has relatives close enough for any support. And we pushed home the point that, because of his handicaps, he would have great difficulty achieving anywhere near what he has here, should he be shipped back to Mexico.
One Day After Three Years
After the interpretation accommodations were made and the other matters settled, Roberto has been allowed to remain in the U.S. with his wife. The judge had little choice but to approve Roberto's application. One day after almost three years in U.S. court, a deaf, mute, illiterate man finally bumped into blind justice. Those handicaps don't impinge on the ability to cry. His counselors saw tears of joy in Roberto's eyes that day.
Let’s resolve to forget about last year’s immigration disappointments. When Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the hopes of millions came crashing down. Suffice it to say that the government failed in solving one of our country’s most troubling issues – immigration. However 2020 ushers a fresh perspective and lessons learned from the past can help in creating a solution.
Despite that relentless effort of thousands of immigrant groups and activists; we witnessed the slow and agonizing death of a comprehensive immigration reform bill on the floor of Congress. Despite criticism that the bill did not go far enough, it would’ve given some respite to the 12 million undocumented residents in this country.
But the shifting political winds may bring some needed solution in 2020. Immigration experts including law professors and veteran immigration lawyers agree that the immigration bill may be revived before the next election.
If democrats win this coming election, the bill may be much kinder and gentler than past proposals. Please recall that the Republican immigration bill called for more enforcement and raids and greater militarization of the border and erosion of some basic due-process rights. And under the Trump Administration this is exactly what we are getting. Critics pointed out that the Trump Administration abandoned long-standing US policy favoring the reunification of families and failed to protect workers’ most basic rights. This coming year the issues may be similar: Should US immigration policy become a labor supply system for corporations, or should it support families and communities? But the bottom line is something must be done.
There is guarded optimism in the air as we enter 2020 and the next election. The millions of families, workers, students, and parents who have been waiting for years for the government to legalize their status are again hopeful. It’s not too early to again prepare for what can be the next immigration amnesty. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Lazaro Law Group, Managing Attorney