In the daily discussion of rights and abuses just before breakfast at the comedor of the Kino Border Initiative, one man began to share about the unreasonableness of his two years in detention, the many abuses he felt he had suffered in the court process, and the ultimate injustice of his trial. He expressed his anger at the process and his intention to fight for his rights. A friend, who works for Kino, leaned over to me and said “I would like you to talk with him and hear the details of his case.”
Before, in the months where I lived full time at Kino, I would have listened to him compassionately, heard him out in his anger and frustration, sought to understand how he felt and what he was dealing with, even though I knew I had no expertise and could do nothing substantial to help. I still have very little expertise. But now my situation and my work are different. Now, when I sat with him I looked over his stacks of paperwork, gathered information and considered what I have learned in the past three months about due process and border litigation to give him an idea, though not official legal advice, of what his very limited options were.
Just as if I had met him three years ago, I still could do nothing for him. But now an expectation, a hope, weighed on me. The thought that given my work on the ACLU’s Border Litigation Project I would somehow be able to transcend the limitations of the system and show him a path to justice. Even if I were a lawyer, because of resource limitations (which I understand) and the nuances of the US court system (which I cannot yet grasp), in most cases when migrants’ rights are violated suing is simply not a viable option.
From my years of journeying and accompanying migrants, I know the feeling of powerlessness. Migrants at the border, on their way north, in their communities after deportation and return, and even undocumented in the US often share with me their helpless desperation when faced with poverty, legal challenges, separation from their families, and fear. I join them in their helplessness.
But now the tone of many conversations is different. For the migrants, it is no longer enough to say that I hope and work toward a future in which our system is more just. People plead for answers and justice in the shorter term. People suffer daily in inhumane detention conditions, immigration officials coerce migrants into signing documents they don’t understand, hospitals deport individuals without informed consent under the pretense of finding them better care, and Border Patrol continues to use excessive force, even killing innocent individuals. We are faced by what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” The pressure of that urgency should make us feel uncomfortable. It should also spur us to action.
It is a new role, in which I cannot forget the old one. I and we cannot forget to sit and listen and patiently be with people in their suffering. Otherwise the urgency is meaningless.