The stories piled up on a judge’s shoulders

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

I live well within the border and have flown far south of it. Never have I been to it but we hear about it every day. The border stories resonate far north in Iowa and especially Storm Lake.

A federal judge today sits in Las Cruces, NM, as sad faces process before him five at a draw shackled and awaiting deportation or even prison. Judge Robert Brack will rend his heart over them as he hears their stories and commits them to memory, explains to them that things are not as they used to be, and then knowingly sends them to what probably is a tragic destiny. He is as shackled by the law in which he cloaks himself as the men in colored jail jumpsuits.

Judge Robert Brack

“I have presided over a process that destroys families.”

That was the headline in the Los Angeles Times last week in a story announcing that Brack is tired, at 65, of the daily, draining grind of it. He will retreat to senior judge status in July and lessen his caseload — the highest of any federal judge in the USA — by half.

Brack was appointed to the state bench by libertarian Gov. Gary Johnson and elevated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2003. He hails from nearby Clovis, from whence he married his college girlfriend at Eastern New Mexico. He was reared around immigrants. It was simply a way of life.

After a few years of processing the poor the judge started writing letters about the broken immigration system to President Barack Obama. He was unburdening himself, to an extent, or at least examining his conscience. He felt compelled to speak out in hopes of shaping a rational policy. He wrote Obama several letters through at least 2013.

But the LA Times story didn’t detail the letters. The story was more about how a devout, straight-laced Catholic took on the weight of poor innocents whose only crime was crossing the nearby Rio Grande to feed their families. He can barely take that burden anymore.

I asked for the letters and he replied with them over the weekend. He began in 2010 as the Tea Party coalesced around anti-immigrant screeds:

“Yesterday morning, I presided over the case of US v. Jesus Chavez-Quezada. Mr. Chavez, a citizen of Mexico, is 21-years-old. All of his family, parents and siblings live in the United States. He was educated in a local high school, he has absolutely no criminal history, and he has been employed consistently. Additionally, he has a five-year-old son.

“Charged with the crime of felony re-entry, Mr. Chavez wept as he was sentenced to time-served and was deported ‘back to Mexico,’ a country he has never known as his home. He has no money, no family there, no prospect of employment, and at the moment is likely standing on a street corner in Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world, terrified and uncertain which way to turn.

“Every day I preside over such cases, over an immigration system that you have described as broken. Every day, many times each day, I see the terribly tragic, real-world consequences of the failure to repair that system. Every day, innocent lives are turned upside down and families are torn apart. As I sentenced Mr. Chavez, something in me snapped, as I considered how differently things might have turned out for him had the Dream Act passed. Surely, we, as a nation, are better than this.

“Many say that all who come without permission are criminals and ought to be punished as such. Many say that most who come bring drugs or are otherwise associated with the drug trade. Many say that a path to citizenship rewards criminal behavior. Given my belief that none of these things are true, to all of the many I would say, ‘Look more closely. See what I see, hear what I hear.’ Be wary of the angriest voices.

“My prayer is that even in this difficult political climate, you reignite the push for comprehensive immigration reform and that you insist that the debate be driven by facts and not angry rhetoric. If I can be of service in informing the ongoing debate, please let me know.

“God bless you as you continue to serve our great nation.”

He sent copies to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The judge awaits a response.

Sitting 45 miles from the Mexican border, not far from the west Texas town of El Paso, nine years into the job by 2012 Judge Brack had sentenced more than 11,000 defendants, most of them Mexican citizens. He wrote again.

Referring to his 2010 letter, he said:

“I was hopeful that the very personal perspective I offered might encourage a renewed push for immigration reform. Nothing, that I know of, came of that effort.

“Here is my point: In each of the 485 intervening days, tens — perhaps hundreds — of families have been torn apart just as Mr. Chavez-Quezada’s was. Today, I sentenced Manuel Alberto Ortega-Maciel. Mr. Ortega’s wife, his four children, and all of his relatives live in the United States. Here since 2001, he has absolutely no criminal history. A hard-working, otherwise law-abiding, dedicated husband and father, he has now been deported to a country he hasn’t called home for over a decade.

“Many would ask why these stories matter. They would say that families are torn apart every time a convicted criminal is sentenced to prison, and argue that our society has deemed this a justifiable price for the flouting of our laws. But this ignores our own complicity in creating a system that has for generations ignored, and at times encouraged, illegal immigration. It is an unassailable fact that if there is work available at higher wages that can be earned back home, they will try to come. And Americans, it seems, have an insatiable demand for cheap labor. Despite laws on the books criminalizing the hire of illegal immigrants, employers have no fear of prosecution. And for good reason. Of the 11,000 defendants I have sentenced in these nine years, not one was an employer.”

No answer. So again, on March, 25, 2013:

“Laura Maribel, 14, Angel, 12, Lluvia, 8, Mia Guadalupe, 7, Fabia, 5 and Destiny, 3, have experienced more pain than anyone of their age should. Their mother, Laura Esthela Casilla-Barbosa, awaits deportation following sentencing for felony re-entry. Ms. Casilla-Barbosa has lived in the United States for the past 15 years and, aside from an immigration offense, she has no criminal history. Their father is currently detained in McAllen, Texas, pending deportation. The children will remain in the United States, hopeful that someday their parents will be able to return.

“Eric Castro-Alvarez, a 33-year-old field laborer, provides financial and emotional support for his partner, Ana, and their three children, Jesus, 11, Erika, 7 and Lisandro, 17 months, all of whom live in California. Having the support and love of a father is important to any child, but it is all the more important in this family because Lisandro is disabled. Tragically, this family will be forced to carry on with Mr. Castro-Alvarez supporting them from afar.

“The Chavez-Cruz family is another suffering due to our broken system. Juan Carlos, father of 5-year-old Alaina, came to the United States at the tender age of 10. He attended school and build his life in this country. His wife and child, both of whom are United States citizens, are not willing to leave all that our great nation has to offer for an unsafe and uncertain environment in Mexico. Thus, they will remain in the United States without Mr. Chavez-Cruz.

“It is in this country that 49-year-old Maria Irma Lopez-Perez and her husband raised their four children and made their life. Now, after 30 years in the United States, Ms. Lopez-Perez has been sent ‘back’ to Mexico. Her husband and children, who are now between 19 and 26 years of age, remain in the United States.

“Since 1987, Jose Bernardo Marquez-Garcia has lived in the United States. That is the majority of his 45 years. Aside from immigration offenses, Mr. Marquez-Garcia has no criminal history. When you consider Mr. Marquez-Garcia’s story, his immigration offenses make sense. He is a single parent of three children, Donna, 9, Joselyn, 7, and Nathanael, 6, all of whom are United States citizens. Raising their children is hard work, made all the harder when one is a single parent. Mr. Marquez-Garcia’s support system is in the United States, and the children are currently in the care of their maternal grandmother. As I told Mr. Marquez-Garcia of the consequences if he continues to return to the United States illegally, I wondered what I would do were I in his shoes.

“… The current system has ravaged the families of the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who have come before me every day for nearly 10 years, and that damage cannot be forgotten.”

No answer.

He cannot forget.

The attorney general says that it is the fault of the people who brought the children here. The judge would advise the attorney general, as he did President Obama, that we lured them here. All of us did. It is, the judge told me, “an invented crisis of our own making.”

Yet it goes on. The stories accumulate and are drowned out by the noise from those angriest voices.

Thirty-two men, many of them fathers, were arrested May 9 at a cement factory in Mount Pleasant for allegedly having committed a crime. We have not been told by authorities what the crime is. Eight have been released on $10,000 bond each. They told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that they were detained for being in the country illegally. The Des Moines Register ran photos of the teenage girls left behind.

In July 2017 nine people were found dead in a sweltering semi-trailer parked in a San Antonio, Texas, parking lot. Some of the 30 let loose scattered while some were detained. I do not know what happened to them. There simply is no word. The truck driver, a black man from Alabama, was sentenced to life in prison. Pyle Trucking of Schaller owned the trailer. We have heard of no charges against the owners. They said their hands were clean. The coyotes, presumably, are still out there working the border to Las Cruces, linking themselves to Denison (where 11 died from heat in a locked train box car) and Worthington and Storm Lake beyond the north reaches of the old Great Western Cattle Trail that runs up through Dodge City and St. Joe, Mo., and Omaha, now the interstate highway hub for the immigrant diaspora of the Midwest.

Nothing has changed.

Nobody has answered the judge’s letters.

Yet the stories roll past him today. Nothing can stop this flow, the judge laments. He tells me he feels drawn to the people he is deporting. He wants to go to Oaxaca in southern Mexico where indigenous cultures survive.

There he might find Jesus.

Jesus Chavez. He was thrown to Juarez and Lord knows where next.

“Jesus is 26 years-old. He speaks English, in addition to his native Spanish, so well that he appeared without the assistance of the interpreter. A Mexican citizen, he has lived in the United States for nine years. He was to be married to the mother of his two children on Friday of the week he was arrested on Tuesday. His intended and his children are all United States citizens. He has absolutely no family remaining in Mexico. Just hours after I imposed sentence for his felony re-entry he was deported... He promises he won’t return. I wonder.”