The courtroom smells of talcum powder. On this afternoon’s docket, we have thirty-four children. Thirty-four out of 35,000 or 57,000 or 90,000 kids who have crossed our borders without permission since last October, depending on which source you trust to make sense of what doesn’t.
They nurse under soft pink blankets. Their sneakered feet swing from polished wooden benches. They crawl over the seat backs, climb mamas’ legs, fall and bonk their heads, wail in that new-to-the-world way. A few teens and tweens sit primly, morosely. The children have all been here for hours, toughing it out in windowless waiting rooms and hallways. Amusement has thinned.
We—Court Clerk, Spanish Interpreter, and Counsel—wear suits and lanyards. We sip coffee and sometimes it burns our tongues. We aim for efficiency, but we have good days and lousy days like everyone else. We’re not in this for our health.
Today’s respondents, accused of violating the immigration laws of the United States, are undeniably, inescapably cute: round brown eyes fringed by long black lashes, milk teeth protruding from shy smiles, dirty little fingernails on pudgy fingers. It takes mental acrobatics to imagine their journeys—dog-paddling across sludgy rivers, crouching into boulder crags when searchlights sweep, sleeping under foil blankets in makeshift government camps. Once assigned to courts in Tacoma, San Antonio, New Orleans, Newark, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities, the munchkins smear fingerprints on Plexiglas bus windows and watch the new land unfurl.
Nobody in this courtroom made the world.
Amid general pandemonium, the mothers are solemn and watchful, eyes darting from the flag, to Judge Casey, to me sitting at the interpreter’s stand, to the Department of Justice seal on the wall behind the judge’s bench. Some of the mothers have lived here for years, working crap jobs to send money home, awaiting pictures of childhoods missed, looking forward to Sunday calls; now that their children have arrived, there is an air of reunion in the courtroom, families clinging, smelling each others’ skin. Other mothers are as new to our world as their babies. This country is fast and impersonal and they are not welcome to stay, not without a fight.
Judge Casey calls the courtroom to order in a gentle tone, unlike her usual assertive voice. Everything is soft today, for the children. Hearts beat in this room, for the children.
Judge Casey is not wearing her robe. She’s dressed in a simple, elegant silk shirt and cardigan. French manicure, classic makeup/no-makeup look. She is not the system and she emphasizes this fact. The laws are not of her creation, though she will enforce them to the letter. The black robe will eclipse her cardigan tomorrow. But today we are only processing children.
The door swings. A crew-cut bailiff enters, catches Judge Casey’s eye, steps back out.
“While we wait,” Judge Casey says in a general announcement, “it’s okay for the children to explore the courtroom. It may help keep them calm. Just make sure they stay clear of the door, so it won’t clobber them when it opens.” The mothers smile at this small kindness.
“They can even come up here,” Judge Casey says, nodding toward the well, the hallowed space before her bench. “Or they can sit in the big chair and get used to it.” She points to the heavy leather armchair behind the witness stand. “I don’t want them to feel afraid in the courtroom.”
My voice, echoing through the loudspeaker as I interpret Judge Casey’s words into Spanish, has the opposite effect. The children fall silent and huddle against their mothers.
“I will not decide any cases today,” the judge continues. “You have the right to legal representation, but the government will not pay for it. You must hire your own attorney, and I recommend you do so immediately, before your next hearing date.”
After the general announcements, respondents are called forward by name, along with their guardians. A mother takes the witness stand with her three little respondents, who bumble around her feet. Like her boys, this mother has just arrived in the great USA. Fresh off the truck, train, or bus, fresh over the fence, fresh across the river. Her newness is so obvious.
She wears plastic flip-flops in court.
Not a shoe collector, this one, not a woman with thirty pairs of high heels in her closet. Her black hair is tied back in a simple ponytail. She is round-cheeked and round-eyed, a fine mist of fear rising from her skin. She possesses the beauty of an unadorned human, nothing more, nothing less.
Her boys wrestle on the slate blue carpet in front of the Judge’s bench. They are unruly. The mother is so sorry. She begs her sons to behave well. As if obedient children would have a better chance.
That this woman has paid thousands for supposedly safe passage is a given. She may have been deceived, raped, robbed, or abandoned in the desert to cross unaided or die. It happens. She and her boys are from Guatemala, where crop soil is rich in peasant blood, where the wrong dialect may mark you for death. We’ve heard this story a million times in this court. No doubt she will apply for asylum for herself and her children. It’s a coin toss: around a 50/50 chance they will be allowed to stay, a 50/50 chance they will be ordered out. Heads or tails. Her story is the coin; she carries it on her tongue.
In my role as interpreter, everything said here passes through my lips. There are days when I say awful things like, “He raped me in the kitchen, while the other man murdered my sister.” I also may say, “Unfortunately, your application fails to meet the nexus requirement set out by the laws governing asylum.” I have no control over the words coming out of my mouth. I am something between a linguist, a technician, and a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Dispassion is crucial. My emotions and opinions are irrelevant, and could lead to errors. I focus on accuracy—saving the rest for late at night, when I’m safe at home in my privileged life, and can allow myself to hear what I have said.
But today isn’t for stories. Today, we are processing children. Hearing dates are set, addresses confirmed, advisals given. It is not the day for deportation, removal, or voluntary departure. Nor is it the day for mercy.
In border towns, red-blooded Americans protest the kiddie invasion. Men and women chant furiously, pumping homemade signs and mass-produced flags. “We don’t want you!” they shout. “You’re stealing our tax dollars!” they shout. “Return to sender!”
Time for that later, too.
Today, we are processing children.
A red toy sports car rolls across the well and clatters against Judge Casey’s bench.
Original illustrations by Chris Koehler.