It makes sense that the Executive Office for Immigration Review in San Antonio is on Dolorosa Street. The word “Dolorosa” means “painful,” a fitting name for the apprehension I felt about observing the proceedings at immigration court, where the cases of undocumented immigrant children are heard.
I’d lived downtown mere blocks from that place some years ago, but had never given a thought to the nondescript brick building across the street from Mi Tierra, the storied restaurant that welcomes itinerant legions of tourists from all over the world who feast on enchiladas and margaritas and then make their way to the adjacent bustling Market Square and its many quasi-authentic if overpriced wares from otra tierra a river away.
But inside the brick building and an elevator ride to the third floor, through a quick security check and to Courtroom 4 where Judge Anibal D. Martinez presides, there is not a whisper of the swarming souvenir seekers, not an echo of a Mariachi musician.
In the air there is an almost palpable nervous electricity that I must be projecting because I’m about to enter a courtroom, and I’ve never had cause to enter one before in my five decades of life, not even for jury duty, not so far, and certainly not as an observer of the hearings that will play out before me as they do in 59 other immigration courts across the United States. I don’t know what to expect and the nameless, almost indescribable smell of a doctor’s waiting room, a space that could portend either a long period of healing or a dire prognosis, overwhelms my senses. But I’m not the patient under examination.
When I enter, it’s difficult not to be moved to deference in the empty quiet with the large American flag to the left and the Justice Department seal, triple the size of a dinner plate, square in the middle of the judge’s bench. It features the Latin “Qui pro Domina Justitia sequitur” and three gold stars around an eagle perched on an olive branch and 13 silver arrows. The precise translation of the Latin isn’t clear to most.
The Justice Department offers “who prosecutes on behalf of Lady Justice,” but others believe it could mean “who seeks for lady justice,” which makes the subject ambiguous. The murkiness of the phrase paradoxically underscores the single absolute that the issue of the child immigrants is confounding with no easy answers and little traction so far to resolve the attendant partisanship, the willful lack of compassion from some corners, and the universal impotence from this country and Central America to calm the flow of immigrants (more than 57,000 to date) and stem the lawless violence that plagues their home countries and drives them to other nightmares and hazards a world away.
The small courtroom accommodates two rows of wooden benches along the back wall. They’re like church pews before the tables and chairs for the Government’s attorney on one side and the dozen attorneys that come before the judge one at a time with their clients. The bar, the wooden gate that separates the pews from the attorneys, is like a low-tech turnstile. It’s no less effective for its simple design. It opens and closes repeatedly. There are some 20 hearings over a period of an hour and a half on this Wednesday morning.
The judge is flanked by the bailiff on one side and an EOIR interpreter on the other. On this morning, Marta Tijerina translates the necessarily scripted legalese of an efficient and attentive Judge Martinez into a lilting, lyrical, almost affectionate Spanish. I’m bilingual, too. She hasn’t played fast and loose with the judge’s intent in any of her conversions. But she conveys the seriousness of the judge’s admonitions with a maternal smile and encouraging nod, then looks expectantly at the nervous mothers or the little siblings fidgeting in the back row.
The judge asks each attorney if Spanish is the respondent’s “best language.” Although many of the children of Central America who have come to the United States speak only the indigenous language of their country, today, the answer each time is “Yes.” I can’t help but think that right now, after the unimaginable hardship and despair that has brought them to this leg of the journey, the familiar notes and modulations of Spanish make it the “best,” not because they don’t understand English, but because they are hearing Marta Tijerina who asks questions gently and cautions them temperately.
But there’s another code to decipher. The cryptic numbers that name cases or requisite forms, the “admission” and “concession” of this and that “allegation,” the “contemplated relief,” for each young client, the “adjudications” and “waivers,” the “E28’s” for the “SIJ’s” and “UAC’s.” The judge rarely alters the script for the many children before him. And although the bar opened and closed repeatedly for ninety minutes in Courtroom Four for some two dozen children awaiting a hearing, and nearly every one learned the same fate of a forestalled SIJ or Special Immigrant Juvenile status (to say nothing of an as yet delayed asylum), each one has her/his own story. Each one experienced untold horrors back home, traversed the merciless terrain, the ominous river, and perhaps even an inauspicious welcome in this country.
Yes, the numbers are staggering: 57,000. But I looked into faces of boys and girls that could be my own children. San Antonio’s own children. I’m thinking about Carlos and Oscar, Hayde, Elias, Maria, Milagros, Yeral and Enrique, and one young boy with the unlikely name of Elvis.
José came to the states over a year ago from San Salvador. His father and mother left the country and left him with his grandmother when he was four years old. His father ended up in Austin, his mother moved to the Midwest. At sixteen years old, José’s assimilation has not been easy. Even living with his father after over a dozen years became difficult and he was turned out and went to live with an uncle instead. But today he is in the courtroom with his father, his stepmother, and little brothers who are American citizens, born in the United States. In spite of the difficulty of managing in the States, José insists nothing can make him return to San Salvador where he did his best while in his grandmother’s care and in school but was still incessantly harassed by the anarchic gangs who tried to recruit him and threatened to kill him and his family if he did not comply.
With the final hearing of the docket—one for a juvenile who did not make the scheduled court date and is now considered “removable” or “deportable’’—we rose to our feet as Judge Martinez took his leave. While I’d been uneasy about entering the courtroom, I wasn’t quite as eager to leave. This seemed a safe place, a fair place, as fair as it can be for now.
Walking back into the day, I made my way back to my car. I smelled stinging car exhaust mingled with the tang of fried food. Dissonant street sounds filled the air. People walked down the street or stood on corners waiting for the bus. Everyone was moving, getting to the next place on Dolorosa.
*Featured/top image: The Executive Office for Immigration Review in San Antonio is located at 800 Dolorosa St. Photo by Iris Dimmick.