BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – They swam, they rafted, they waded, they walked through the desert. They got caught.
That’s the short, surface version of the stories of these 45 Central American immigrants. Their cases were all heard on the same morning this fall before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald G. Morgan in a federal courtroom in Brownsville, Texas. This is a story of process, not of the histories and hopes and dreams of these people – 38 men and 7 women – or the economic and political forces that drove them north, or the fierce political debate in the United States over what immigration policy is and ought to be.
There are spaces for that.
This day, in this formal room with the arched ceiling and long wooden benches, it was a time for process: for each of the 45 defendants to stand, shackled, to plead guilty, to take the next step towards deportation and being sent back home.
These people are not seeking political asylum – not claiming to immigration authorities that they face violence or reprisals back home. They might not understand how to do that, or might not have a case. They were trying to enter the United States illegally, in search of a better life but in violation of the law.
In the Rio Grande Valley sector, the sector closest to Brownsville, the Border Patrol made 162,262 apprehensions in fiscal year 2018 (out of nearly 400,000 across the U.S.-Mexico border). That’s up from 137,562 in the Rio Grande Valley sector in fiscal year 2017 – an increase of nearly 18 percent.
This is a powerful current of immigration, decades in the making, evident all across the southwestern United States. Being in the courtroom that day was like seeing the human stream frozen in motion.
The process is sterile, but not impolite. The judge addressed the defendants as “ladies and gentleman,” referring to them as Ms. Ramirez or Mr. Lopez. The judge said “Good morning,” the defendants answered in unison: “Buenos dias.” He carefully informed them of their rights: to have an attorney, to decline to testify and not have that held against them, and so on. He asked each if they understood the charges against them. For those who spoke Spanish, his words in English were translated — the defendants all wore headsets, and responded individually as instructed.
They apparently all were represented by a single public defender. Most were charged with a misdemeanor offense for illegal entry.
They wore street clothes: sweatshirts, blue jeans, T-shirts, tennis shoes. Their hands were chained around their waists, making their efforts to raise their right hands to swear to tell the truth clunky. No cameras or cell phones were allowed in the courtroom, but a volunteer from the American Civil Liberties Union, Therese Gallegos, a retired college English professor, sat in the back monitoring the cases.
They all plead guilty.
Only a few cases were pulled out and given more extended attention, typically for a felony charge for illegal reentry, because the person had been caught at least once before and deported. Those cases gave glimpses into the broader human drama.
When the judge questioned five defendants individually, he asked them how many years of school they’ve had. The answers: second grade of elementary school, one year of high school for two, middle school, sixth grade. They ranged in age from 19 to 39.
“I can’t tell you the last time I saw five (reentry cases) at the same time,” Morgan told the prosecutor after sentencing.
“It sure is a new world,” the prosecutor responded.
Nearly all the 45 were captured within the last two days – which meant they crossed the Rio Grande, were captured quickly and are almost immediately going right back. Some had tried to cross before — one was deported previously on June 15, another June 27, a third August 24.
Two women from Guatemala did not speak Spanish and were provided a translator, via an audio link, in the K’iche’ language – a language spoken in the central highlands of Guatemala. They stood as a pair before judge, one slight with her head bowed, the other with a braid down her back.
The smaller woman said she was 27, with a sixth-grade education. She had a prior conviction for illegal entry and was sentenced to spend 10 days in jail, and then be deported. The other told the judge, “I just want to thank you very much” for conducting the proceedings.
When it came time for sentencing, each defendant was given a chance to speak, but few chose to do so. A 31-year-old man had been detained while trying to go to Houston, where he has lived since 1996 and has children. He has lived in the United States since 1996 — which meant he first came to this country when he was 9.
A man from Nicaragua stood and told the judge “I’m afraid of going back to my country.” Morgan responded, “I have no authority to address that issue here,” but suggested the man raise his concern with immigration authorities.
A Venezuelan stood and apologized to the United States and the judge for entering the country illegally, and said he now understands he needs to bring his asylum petition to immigration officials.
Morgan warned the group of the consequences if they try to cross the border illegally again.
“It’s a different world,” the judge said. “If you come back to this country, you’ll probably be sent to jail and charged with a felony. Keep that in mind as you make our decision the next time.”
The morning’s proceedings were matter-of-fact, efficient, without visible drama. The immigrants’ faces showed little expression. They seemed impassive, resigned, sometimes a bit restless.
Mostly they seemed young.