Justice at Las Cruces



Climbing the shallow gray stone steps leading to the borderlands of justice in Las Cruces, New Mexico, you see something in the arid morning sun gleaming between the glass. It looks like a miniature Washington Monument on the first landing of the 10th District Federal Courthouse. Closer inspection reveals it represents a border crossing marker, half white Italian marble and half Mexican honey onyx, the union of two places where cultures flow as one not far from the Rio Grande.

Up above on the fourth floor in the Guadalupe Courtroom the cultures are torn asunder along with consciences as all rise at 9 a.m. sharp Tuesday for U.S. District Court Judge Robert Brack entering through a back door to his bench.

Robert Brack
U.S. District Court Judge

Facing him below along the benchrail are 13 unlucky men, ages 20 to 30, in shackles and chains wearing jail suits of different colors from the counties that rent space to the federal marshal. They wear ear nodes for the translation. They are expressionless looking down.

They have been caught for a second time trying to enter the United States. Time was when you could try to enter 40 times and the border guards would turn you around and send you back. Not now. These young men, fathers all feeding their families, have been criminalized.

Defendant Ramirez, please step to the podium.

His public defender tells the story:

He is 25. He is from Honduras, wracked by gang and political violence. He has a wife and seven-year-old stuck in New Jersey applying for asylum. He had worked before on a cattle ranch north of the border but got deported. He came back with his family. He was charged with criminal re-entry while the wife and child remain in asylum limbo.

“This is an unbearable sorrow,” Judge Brack told Mr. Ramirez. “We have had enough separation of families.”

That gnaws at the 65-year-old judge, who took senior status in July after hearing some 15,000 stories like those of poor Mr. Ramirez over the past 15 years.

“Some days,” he says in chambers, “it can just stoop you over.”

On those days, he would sit down and write a letter. First to President Obama, 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.

As he does to six similar letters to Obama and other federal officials through 2013. He gave up writing.

The judge doesn’t have a clue what happened to Jesus Chavez. Jesus shuffled out the courtroom in leg chains through a black door that locked itself, in the custody of the marshal, down the hall to El Paso and into a mist of memory.

Just like Mr. Ramirez. They would pack him on an airplane to Mexico City where he is bound for an uncertain fate. The planes fly out three days a week and fill fast.

“Vaya con Dios,” Judge Brack tells him.

JUDGE BRACK is a product of the borderlands and embraces it. He was reared in Clovis, a town of 40,000 with dairy barns clustered around manned by Latino labor. He worked the fields with Latinos, and nobody thought about papers. The border was secured only by those 260 markers from Las Cruces to San Diego, some decorated with plastic flowers for those lost to the journey.

The folks would go from Juarez to El Paso Del Norte (the passage to the North), Texas, and work the cattle or the chile fields around Las Cruces until the work was done. Then they went home.

It was like that for centuries, depending on economic needs. The border, after all, is a nebulous concept in the minds of many who live along it. It is especially so when you stand at the site of the Gadsden Purchase in Mesilla, now part of Las Cruces metro, where in 1854 the Mexicans took a check at the end of the barrel of a U.S. gun to give up everything from the Pacific to Texas.

“Our people were here before the United States,” says retired Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, long an advocate for poor immigrants in New Mexico and Texas. “Now they are locked up in chains. There is a violence associated with this. It is a crisis of conscience. It is a violation of humanity and decency.”

Judge Brack and Bishop Ramirez are close friends. Judge Brack is a devout Catholic, the son of a railroad man. Growing up, his best friend was Jimmie Reyna, whose mother urged the boys in Spanish to do what they would with enthusiasm. They went to law school together at the University of New Mexico. Jimmie became a judge on the federal court in the District of Columbia. Bob Brack was a general practice lawyer in Clovis, was appointed to the state district court bench by Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, in 1997 and was elevated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2003. (He became a fishing buddy of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.) Little did he know then what lay ahead: He would build a new courthouse finished in 2010 that speaks to the border culture, replete with references to the spiritual in this land of enchantment and sorrow. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the revolutionary mestiza mother of the Divine, is everywhere: from the courthouse to the restaurant door, images of her in the photos of the indigenous on another court floor, and tattooed on the backs of countless defendants who process before the judge in the courtroom by her name. She is their protector, the bishop says, when nobody else wants them.

“I like to think I’m mitigating the misery,” the judge says. “If I didn’t, I would have quit long ago.”

Up next to the podium: Defendant Lopez.

He is from Guatemala by way of the Mexican state of Chiapas. He fled the violence of his homeland. He fears death if he returns. His wife is in Florida with a six-month-old child. Three other children are in Chiapas, the site of a peasant campesino revolt when the North American Free Trade Agreement killed their corn market. His wife and baby have political asylum but because he was caught twice entering, he is a criminal. He lived in El Norte for five years until he was first shipped out in 2011.

“This nasty immigration business, I hate this,” Judge Brack told Mr. Lopez. “I hate this is happening to you.”

He sentenced him to 48 days time served in the county jail, and ordered that he be allowed to apply for asylum in El Paso. Advocates say he has about a 3% chance of scoring.

“Vaya con Dios,” the judge says.

He says it is hard almost every time he utters it.

Because, he insists, this is a crisis of our own making. During World War I we wanted Latino labor. During the Great Depression the heat came down first on the blacks and brown people, the bishop says. But then they were welcome again during and after World War II in the bracero program that virtually allowed unlimited access until the 1980s. There was a stab at immigration reform in 1986, and that is when amnesty became a dirty word. Still, immigrants were recruited by food processors and cattle feeders up the old Great Western Cattle Trail from El Paso to Dodge City. But something changed.

Judge Brack asked a defendant if he had any problems in 2006 getting in. No was his answer.

“You certainly know there’s a hard feeling about immigrants right now,” he told all the defendants. “We’re caught up in this change of attitude. There is nothing but heartache ahead if you come back.”

In fact, there is up to a year in prison if any one of them tries.

“Everyone gets caught, and everyone gets charged with a crime,” he told the courtroom. “Our border is guarded jealously.”

Judge Brack traces it to 9/11. The nation was on lockdown and in fear. Fear looks for a group of people to dehumanize, says public defender Peter Edwards who has been working this court alongside Judge Brack for two decades. “It is my job to make them human before the court,” said Edwards, whose Jewish parents from England fled for the United States following World War II. He sees parallels from his parents’ immigration story that few want to consider.

There was the Tea Party revolution in 2010 with boisterous calls for a wall along the border — which the Border Patrol never asked for.

And then came President Trump and Attorney General Sessions with a zero-tolerance policy.

In 2003 there were 150,000 border encounters in the 10th Judicial District. About 4,500 were prosecuted. The rest were simply turned around to try again another day. In 2017 there were 10,000 encounters at the border and 100% were arrested and charged.

Judge Brack had the heaviest caseload of any federal judge in the nation. He was happy to welcome a second judge, Kenneth Gonzales, five years ago.

He has seen plenty of bad hombres come before them and has no qualms meting out justice. Yet over all those cases of deportees in chains, Judge Brack never saw a defendant who looked like a terrorist or someone who would endanger our way of life. Almost all are just looking for a wage.

And, in not one of those 15,000 criminal case hearings has an employer stood before him charged with illegally hiring immigrants. They pay taxes and vote and influence politicians.

MORE TYPICAL is a young man from Oaxaca awhile back.

He was in detention 27 days. He told the judge they were among the best of his life because he was able to think for the first time. In Mexico, if he found work that day he had no time to think. If he did not find work the next day, he could only think about finding work. “Thinking is a luxury I’ve never had,” he told the judge.

He concluded that home is good with his wife and children. He came here only for the promise of higher wages. “But it was all a grand deception,” he told Judge Brack. “There is nothing here for me.”

Judge Brack tells the defendants that he admires them, that he would do the same thing, that they are on a “noble quest to feed your families.” But he urges them not to return because everything has changed and they fall victim to our debate.

“I want them to get back on their quest.”

He wants policy makers to see what he sees. That we are changing the rules all the time. On that Tuesday afternoon he intended to follow up on the status of some separated children held in Yonkers, N.Y. He had recently ordered that the father should be held off a deportation flight until they were reunited. Such are his days, even at half-time.

It’s all because immigration has become the third rail of politics, he muses. Nobody can do anything because of fear at the ballot box, so the fear is stoked. And that way nothing gets fixed. The supply of labor is attacked but never the demand.

“We were telling them all this time that we don’t take this too seriously,” Judge Brack said.

He still hopes that hearts can be turned. Make the undocumented meatpacker a citizen. Pay a fine and time served. Build a wall if you will. He pleads for some justice.

“Is this justice? Is this fair?” he says as he stares out the window to the blue hills of Mexico.

This column was first published in The Guardian US (theguardian.com).