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Immigration and the courts

Stories like this are by now tragically familiar: As detailed in last week's CITY, Gilberto Reyes-Herrera, an undocumented immigrant – dedicated father, hard worker, longtime community member – is a passenger in a car stopped for a minor infraction. A state trooper, suspecting that Reyes-Herrera is undocumented, contacts ICE – federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement – in violation of a New York State executive order prohibiting such contacts.

ICE determines that Reyes-Herrera had reentered the US illegally more than a decade earlier. He is arrested, denied bail, torn from his wife and three children, and then detained for over half a year in an Allegany County jail.

At long last, Reyes-Herrera, this broad-shouldered farmworker, has his final day in court. He is escorted there handcuffed, in sight of his two older children and those of us who have supported him throughout his ordeal. US District Judge Charles Siragusa, meticulously reviewing the intricacies of American justice, takes pains to convince himself that Reyes-Herrera, despite the language barrier, fully understands his legal options.

But Judge Siragusa appears dismayed when Reyes-Herrera, saying he has no choice, insists on pleading guilty to the felony charge, all but sealing a fate of deportation. Judge Siragusa seems clueless that in fact this man's plea is an act of desperation and dignity, at once freeing him from months of humiliation as a caged criminal and exemplifying a lifetime of courage and integrity. With this plea he takes into his own two hands, as he always has, the unfolding of a very sad, dangerous, and uncertain future.

Judge Siragusa, in his final remarks, says he has never seen so many supporters in his courtroom for such a case. He expresses regret that his own judicial hands, despite his senior status on the bench, are "tied" by an unforgiving legal code, which he took an oath to uphold. Still, he intones a hope for some "miracle" that might save Reyes-Herrera from deportation.

He concludes, bewilderingly, by praising Reyes-Herrera as an exemplar of the American dream, an honor to the country, even as he passes this now-convicted felon off to ICE detention in Batavia for likely deportation.

How might all this have gone differently? It's not clear what specific actions Judge Siragusa might have explored throughout this ordeal to ease the unjust suffering of Gilberto Reyes-Herrera and his family. Allow bail or a move to a closer jail? Permit plea bargaining to a lesser charge? Follow up on the initial illegal arrest by the state trooper? Make a public statement about the cruel injustice of this case?

Judge Siragusa might have followed the courageous, principled examples of federal judges across the country now speaking out or standing up against Donald Trump's draconian immigration policies.

Last month US District Judge Katherine Forrest ordered the immediate release of a New York City immigrant-rights leader from "unnecessarily cruel" ICE detention in New York, temporarily delaying his deportation.

US District Judge Elizabeth Wolford, who filled Judge Siragusa's previous position on Rochester's federal bench, issued a preliminary injunction in November against the now-routine denial of parole for those seeking asylum at Batavia detention center.

US District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco issued an injunction last month blocking DACA's cancellation by the Trump administration, which must "maintain the DACA program on a nationwide basis" as long as current legal challenges proceed.

If other federal judges are finding ways to use their power in the service of justice and decency, Judge Siragusa might have tried as well. After all, if not him, who?


Trump's wall

Donald Trump's border wall has less to do with the inherent prejudice it manifests throughout the citizenry than with its rapidly outmoded usefulness in the 21st century.

A wall is a product of an archaic way of thinking. The Walls of Jericho were built to protect a tribal conception of worship. The Great Wall of China was constructed to keep out inferior armies. The walls of the powerful African dynasties and the massive barriers of the South American empires were all designed to promote a timid, xenophobic, fearful, and closed system.

That is a worldview that began to fade with the invention of railroads and automobiles, came close to passing away with the coming of radio and television, and now with the digital revolution – soon to be the quantum computer revolution –it has completely run its course.

This last revolution altered how humans think about each other, the way they transact goods and information, as well as their fundamental need for new modes of transparency, movement, and mutual understanding. 

Walls are not only a part of a different time period, but they are part of a different mindset. Walls signify sturdiness but result in blockage. Walls symbolize strength and might, yet their very foundation is built on the sand of selfish desires. Walls are claimed to keep nations safe, but in reality all they do is keep people's fears protected from the light of truth.

In an age when products are bought and sold in quantities of millions per second, and when they are distributed all over the inhabited globe without interference and theft, walls become cumbersome, antithetical, and obsolete. All of the important action goes right over them, right under them, and right through them.

For there is no wall that can keep out the force of ideas. Just as there is no wall that can withstand the march of progress; and no wall is so impenetrable that it can keep at bay the momentum of people intent on discovering their full potential.

What Trump and his allies should be promoting – and what the United States should always promote – is the tearing down of walls. Isn't that what Reagan advocated? Who does Trump stand with more: the Soviet-backed East Berlin autocracy or the freedom-touting conservatism of Ronald Reagan?

What the ideal of America has always promoted is windows over walls. Where other societies have tried to close down, retreat inwards, fortify, and homogenize, the American experiment in democracy has chosen to embrace openness, acceptance, extension, and pluralism in all aspects of life.

From religion to politics, the symbol of windows has more accurately defined our national aspirations. At its best, this attitude has been embodied in the universal message of all races and ethnic groups. Native Americans and African Americans possess this quality in abundance. So do Chinese Americans and Latin Americans. In fact, all true Americans who believe in the oneness of humanity know that walls are meant to be toppled.


Feedback feedback

Something did not ring true to me when I read the letter writer's statement that former US Attorney General Eric Holder called whites a nation of cowards. This is incorrect. What Holder said, was that when it comes to discussing race, we have acted as a "nation of cowards." He never used the term "whites," and only said that the nation has been cowardly when it comes to talking about this issue.

A quick Google search on Holder's name and "nation of cowards" will bring up reports from CNN and others on this, which occurred in 2009.


I am disappointed that City Newspaper would print a letter to the editor that is factually incorrect, apparently intentionally so, and thereby inflammatory. The writer alleges that in 2009 Eric Holder specifically stated that "whites [are] a nation of cowards." Holder said nothing of the sort. He was holding all of America responsible for dodging the hard work of addressing racism.


Holder's exact words were: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

If you equate "This nation" entirely with "white people," then you're part of the problem, not the solution.


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