Sunday, January 28, 2018

Deportation: One Man's Tragedy in the Age of Trump

Pansy Valdez
©Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus

When I returned from the hotel breakfast buffet, Keeland and Pansy were still sleeping on the bedroom side of the suite, but Eric was awake, looking at the news on his phone, and looking uncomfortable on the skinny sofa bed mattress we’d finally pulled off the broken springs and laid on the floor the night before. Benjamin’s asylum hearing, the reason we four had journeyed to cold and, now, snowy Chicago wasn’t until one p.m., so I suggested to my husband that he and I go somewhere for the morning.

          He got dressed and met me in the lobby, where I sat looking out at the still-festooned wrought iron railings and the shops across the way being dusted with a feathery snow. It was so evocative of Christmas, although we were now several days into January. But nothing about this was in any way festive. From the visit to the Valdez’ lawyer back in Kentucky with Pansy, to the time I’d spent reading the English version of the Documentos para Detenidos, I had a feeling that the odds were not good that Big Daddy (the name by which everyone in our town of Springfield knew Benjamin) would be released today.

          Indeed, even if by some miracle he prevailed with his plea for asylum, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorney could appeal, and was likely to, so the chances of him leaving seemed nil.

          Earlier, over coffee and generic omelet at the Marriot buffet, I’d skimmed the things to do offerings, and discovered the Garfield Park Conservatory. It wasn’t close, but it was free, so if we took an Uber, we’d be able to stroll there awhile and get some warmth and color on this bleak and foreboding morning.

          We both love plants and flowers. A major in Natural Resources, Eric knows much more about the scientific and botanical angle, but I appreciate the aesthetic and poetic properties of flowers, trees, and grasses. On this early January day, the Christmas display remained in a large hall, a massive creation of red and a smaller number of yellow poinsettias, interspersed with carefully chosen and placed charred wooden stalks, aptly titled Fire and Ice. I contemplated the destructive yet wondrous beauty of flames; Eric marveled that each of those limbs had to be charred painstakingly by hand. Perhaps meant to evoke the destruction and awesomeness of the recent conflagrations in the West, it filled a room with red and almost enveloped the viewer. In Buddhist thought, we might call this the jewel in the lotus.

          But it was our stroll through the desert plants that pricked my heart. We passed one plant after another: the allspice, the white zinnia, the Thompson’s yucca, all native to Mexico. I studied their leaves and spines, their colors, vibrant yellows and greens that must be a balm in Central America’s desert regions. All these plants, while indigenous to Mexico, can also be found in Texas, other South western states, and in Central America. No wall or border guard stops them from entering another country. In fact, here they are, in frigid downtown Chicago, being coddled and celebrated, in a museum. People admire and remark upon their qualities and unique abilities to adapt and thrive.

About a week after the hearings, I attended the AME Zion Church in Springfield, and this was the text. The sermon's title was What Are You Worried About?"

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, o ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought,saying, What shall we eat? Or what shall we drink? or Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
..... for your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Mt 6:28-34

I've always loved this passage, and when I heard it after Benjamin's trial, it resonated with my witness of his profound and unwavering faith.

When we returned to the hotel, Pansy and Pupcake (Keeland's nickname) were ready to go to the hearing. Pupcake came out of the bedroom wearing a sweet black and white dress with leotards and a hair bow in her pony tail. “I got dressed up for my dad,” she said proudly.

I didn’t know what Pansy had told her about the hearing, or if she knew that Benjamin was in jail. That is, in the general population, not in a special detention for undocumented immigrants or any such thing. But she probably did. Her birth mother had been in and out of jail, so even though she was immature in many ways, she knew a lot more than many twelve-year-olds. The thought of her being dressed up and excited and then seeing him coming in wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs upset me. Still, I knew that being upset visibly would not help anyone. I tried to keep a playful, non-anxious attitude throughout the trip. Part of me still felt a foreboding about Big Daddy’s chances. O ye of little faith.

We took an Uber to the Immigration Detention Courthouse. Pansy had offered to cover the costs of the trip, and when I told her we’d pay for our expenses, she insisted. Hence, I tried to keep everything as inexpensive as I could. Neither she nor Eric quite understood how Uber worked, so when I explained that the fee went to my credit card, she offered to my pay me, but I told her not to worry. We’d settle later.

I’ve been in jails and detention centers, prisons and courtrooms before, as a minister, as a mother. I know that once you pass through the revolving doors or enter the lobby of the facility, your own freedom is circumscribed. You obey commands, you give up your rights, you will be submissive, or you’ll be ejected or imprisoned yourself. Pupcake didn’t seem distressed about this round of metal detectors and searches. I guessed she’d visited Adrianne, her birth mother, in jail.Even though she presented as much younger than her eleven years, she'd seen a lot. Adrianne had died of a drug overdose just a few months earlier. I am certain she never went through an airport. Everything about being in the city was new and astounding to her.

Led to the small room where Benjamin’s testimony would be heard, we took our seats. I sat next to Pansy, in view of the far door from which Benjamin would emerge. She wore a jewel green top which crossed at the bodice, and her usual assortment of rings and bracelets. Like Pupcake, she’d dressed up for her husband. In minutes, we saw orange, and Big Daddy was at the glass window of the door. For the first time in six months, husband and wife saw one another. I saw only the love and delight on Benjamin’s face. “Oh my, he’s so thin,” Pansy whispered, and I saw that she was holding back tears. She called Pupcake over from the right side of the room, where she had started to work on homework with Eric, and I moved then. I recall being relieved that Benjamin was wearing a sweatshirt-type hoodie which, while still orange, looked less prisoner-like than the jumpsuit alone. It took about three or four minutes’ preparation; Benjamin’s lawyer was sitting in place as was the translator, a young woman who seemed to know the guards, the judge, and the lawyer. We'd been told the judge might be on CCTV rather than in person, but I was surprised that the back of the TV was to us, and he faced only Benjamin, the lawyer, and the translator. The guard brought Benjamin in. He was being detained at Kankakee, IL, so he’d been brought here from about one hour away.

The testimony lasted for about an hour and a half to two hours. I lost track of time. The judge asked Benjamin a litany of questions, followed by cross-examination from the Immigration attorney. From where we were seated, we could only see Benjamin, the lawyer, the translator and the back of the marshal, who I assumed came from Kankakee. He wore street clothes, did not appear to have a weapon, and sat slouched the entire time, chewing and picking at his fingernails. This habit distracted me on several occasions. I wondered if he was anxious or if this was just a tic or habit he resorted to when bored. The viciousness with which he bit and tore at them made me wonder what shape they were in. But most of all, I thought about how tedious this was for him. 

Meanwhile, Benjamin was given ample time to tell his story. He endeavored to explain to the judge why he should be granted asylum. Asylum is not an easy plea. The plaintiff must show that he or she is in imminent danger of being killed or tortured if returned to their country of origin.

Here is Benjamin’s story:
Benjamin Valdez-Gonzalez was born in Veracruz, Mexico in March of 1960. He is 57 years old. He first entered the US in the 1990s but has been deported once, in 2007. He has lived and worked in the US almost continuously for more than twelve years. He’s never been arrested or convicted of a crime in Mexico, the US, or any other country. He’s been married to a US citizen, Pansy Coleman Valdez, for over eleven years. Pansy and her family have lived in the same town in Kentucky for generations dating back to slavery.
When Benjamin was living in Veracruz, he was shot through the chest by police in a case of mistaken identity. He was hospitalized for eight days, and he nearly died. This is important to understanding his primary fear of return, because the police in Vera Cruz are corrupt, as is the entire government. One only needs to read/watch the news to find out about this. His home town, Panuco, sitting as it does on the border, is one of the most dangerous. Veracruz is currently the most deadly and dangerous state ruled by the cartels, namely the Zetas. The legitimate fear Benjamin has is that he would be killed or kidnapped for ransom because he has lived and worked in the US for so long, and it is known that he has money, or has access to money, since he has a wife and other family members here.
He cannot depend upon the police for protection. They are corrupt. He cannot just live somewhere else. “It is the same everywhere,” are his words.

After listening to Benjamin tell his story, I felt briefly that the judge might have mercy. It was clear to me that he showed legitimate reasons to be fearful. Still, in the back of my mind, I thought about the guidelines I had read, and I knew that the threat had to be something more imminent.

And the cross examination verified this. The ICE attorney pressed Benjamin on several small discrepancies between his interview and this testimony he just gave. She then went on to hammer home the point that being shot mistakenly twenty-some years ago did not constitute or could not be the basis for an immediate threat. She pointed out that he could live and work elsewhere in Mexico.

And so we had our ruling. The judge never saw Pansy, who sat tall and focused upon her husband throughout the hearing. She was behind the camera. He never saw Pupcake, who moved back and forth from her seat near Eric and me to a seat next to her mom, wearing her pretty dress she’d chosen for her Big Daddy. He never saw my husband and me, and he certainly didn’t see Big Daddy’s community, his church, the way he has mentored and taught men in the jail with hymns and Bible lessons, his garden at home in Springfield, the tobacco farms on which he labored in the summer swelter or the fine work he has done as a foreman. He didn’t see how harrowing this is for Benjamin’s small family, especially for Pupcake, who will have no one to take her to the pool like he did, to run to when she’s hurt, or to call her “Princess.”

He just saw another name, another number, and he did his job. He did say he found Benjamin "credible."

After the hearing, Pansy and Pupcake were able to visit Big Daddy through glass in a room equipped with phones and cubicles. They couldn’t hug or touch, but they had a long time to talk and made the decision to file an appeal. Benjamin told Pansy he was happy, he was fine, and if he had to leave he would be okay. It was for her he was fighting the deportation. I think what he was saying is that if it was God’s plan, he would accept it. He’d find a way back.

A few weeks later, I was at my Thursday night meditation group. Our teacher, who is both Christian/Catholic and Buddhist, was talking with us about the head/heart metaphor. He said that the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s first impression of Americans was that we are too full of thoughts. He talked about the Buddhist chant om mane pame hum, and how, while it is translated “the jewel in the lotus,” it is also referring to the heart, to the place that can only be reached by the journey of introspection and contemplative practice.

In the room in which we sit are many icons and representations from various religions and schools of thought, from a beaded curtain of the Mona Lisa to a print of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. New to me was a bust of the Christ with his finger pointing to the sacred heart. It was much like those you can see in South America or on kitschy candles in Mexican groceries. The robes of Christ are open, and the wounded heart is revealed.

My thoughts went immediately to Benjamin. In his testimony, as he talked about the gunshot wound he received long ago, he added in (and the translator told us) “But I knew that God wanted me to stay alive.” The judge didn’t ask him how he knew that or what it meant. Just the facts.

The marshal chewed at his cuticles. Pansy sat stoically, still and erect, never taking her eyes from her beloved Big Daddy.

Nonetheless, he continued, “the reason I know that I wasn’t meant to die that day is because the police shot me through the left side of my chest where the heart is supposed to be. Do you want me to show you?” And he raised his hands toward his heart, and for the first time we could see clearly that they were manacled.

The judge indicated that he didn’t need to see the scar, and Benjamin continued: “You see, my heart is not on the left. My heart is on the right side of my chest. So God wanted me to live.”