I swear I could have bored a hole in the back of the lawyer’s head out of pure rage.
On the fifth floor of Immigration Court in Los Angeles, it took everything in me to restrain myself from approaching the incompetent defense lawyer and letting him know how he’d disgraced himself on that Monday morning. But all I could do was sit in the courtroom audience and helplessly watch as an El Salvadorian man was tried, convicted and deported in under 30 minutes.
All I could do was watch as the man’s defense lawyer fumbled to record the right information on his client’s application and request a 10-minute recess to make corrections, an unusual and out-of-place request by the look of the judge and the prosecution.
All I could do was watch as the lawyer spoke to his Spanish-speaking client in slow-paced English, as if the speed of the foreign language would somehow translate itself.
All I could do was watch as he dismissed the Spanish interpreter, replying with a blatant “no” when she offered her services as a language translator.
All I could do was watch as he cursed in court because of a document that was introduced; I watched as he defended taking out his phone in the middle of the trial, explaining to the exasperated judge how he was researching.
And all I could do was watch the client’s constant trust in his lawyer despite everything. Despite his lawyer’s clear incompetence, the man staked his livelihood in the U.S. on a lawyer who had not even decided which course to take before coming to court.
After the conclusion of the trial, all I could think of was the dynamic contrast in situations that those two men would face later that night. One man’s world and family had fallen apart and would have to relocate to the homicide capital of the world, while the other just scratched a loss on his career record. One uncontrollable factor made all the difference: Where they’d had the privilege of being born.
My older sibling and I were born in Seoul, South Korea. My parents were born and raised there, in the country that’s the total combined size of Los Angeles and San Francisco. My family entered the U.S. through my father’s student F-1 visa in 1997, and we received our U.S. citizenships in 2015.
I’ve always heard stories from my parents about our family’s struggle to receive our permanent resident status in the country over the years. I was well aware of the discriminatory practices in my father’s workplaces in Kentucky and Ohio, where my father worked for a combined six years before leaving because of the delayed legal processing and the glass ceilings he resisted.
Yet it wasn’t until I sat 10 feet away from that incompetent defense lawyer that I began to realize the social and systemic implications behind the issues my family has faced.
It could have been my father sitting in the place of the El Salvadorian man that morning. I could have been in that courtroom as the frightened child of the defense unaware of my fate, instead of an observing student on APU’s L.A. term.
The lawyer and my ability to navigate these circles without being oppressed by them reveals our collective privilege. There’s a level of privilege that comes with being able to interact with situations like this and come out unscathed, armed with the ability to write an article in its aftermath. There is privilege that comes from the ability of a presidential candidate to reduce an entire people group to rapists and drug dealers.
This privilege must be acknowledged and validated, not to create further division, but to understand the social oppression that benefit some at the expense of others.
All I know is that one man, among the thousands of other cases held in Immigration Court that day, was wrongfully deported. The American statutes of liberty and justice did not stand proudly by him in that cramped courtroom that morning. Neither did biblical principle, as Leviticus 19:34 states, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Eugene Cho, senior pastor at Quest Church in Seattle, posted on his Instagram: “Everyone loves the idea of reconciliation…not many understand the messy and arduous work involved of learning others’ stories, truth telling, confessing, repenting, dismantling, healing and peacemaking.”
In order for true healing to occur, we need to begin by walking through the stories of others as we strip them of the title ‘foreigner’ and seek to journey in solidarity.