“take the shackles off my feet so i can dance… i just wanna praise You, i just wanna praise You.” Shackles, by MaryMary
The lyrics of this song invaded my soul as I sat for the first time in the DeConcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson this week. I was invited to go with a group of women from First United Methodist Church in Tucson, and although it wasn’t on my calendar, it had been on my heart, so I just went. I was thinking of all the other things I could do…but there I was riding the train to the courthouse. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Arizona…
We entered the court room, and immediately, my senses were troubled. At the front of the room were rows of pews, not unlike what we sit on in church, and a group of men and women were already there. The number of people was in the 70’s by my unofficial count. Two of them were women. The rest were men. Except for one or two, most were young: I’d guess they were mostly in their 20’s or 30’s, though I did wonder if a few of them were teens. The mass of young people waiting to receive prison sentences was destabilizing. I first smelled the odor of bodies that had not had access to a shower or clean clothes. And then I heard this sound. It was a quiet tinkling with no rhythm. I looked closer to see where it was coming from, and I saw that their feet and hands were shackled with chains. For the whole of the time we were there, we heard the chains clinking as groups of young adults were brought before the judge.
They were there because they crossed the border illegally. In this court, they didn’t have any other crimes to contend with, save the “crime” of “illegal entry” or “re-entry after deportation.” They were told by the Honorable Bernardo P. Velasco that they could either enter a plea of guilty to illegal entry/re-entry, or they could reject the plea agreement and have their case go to trial. All of them, every single one of them, decided to take the plea agreement, which was between 30 – 180 days of prison before they were deported to their countries of origin.
This matters because now they are sentenced and become “criminals.” This is how we criminalize the immigrants among us. This is what we do in America with peoples who are migrants. We may have a heart for the Syrian migrants “over there” and we may even criticize other countries for not welcoming those fleeing from horrible situations; but meanwhile, in our own backyard, we are not only unwelcoming, we throw those who are asking for help into prison, and we stamp them as “criminals.” We do this to young men and to young women, and we have not even shown mercy to the young children who cross the border unaccompanied by parents. Well…
There is, of course, the matter of illegality. They are breaking the law. Yes. That is true. But that fact speaks to the insanity of our “laws” and our lack of movement around immigration reform; and our refusal to see the dirt on our own faces as we pay “under the table” for cheap labor and then throw them in prison; and our privatization of prisons that profits off, and perpetuates crazy laws to make more profit, from those who are seeking sanctuary and safety and connection with their families. Those who are suffering. These facts are also true.
On the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, the statue of a woman with the lamp of freedom, who is called “Mother of Exiles,” is the quote from the poem written in 1883:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I will lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I guess we have stopped believing in receiving the tired, poor, huddled masses seeking freedom and family. I guess we decided that slavery still is ok, and that sending people en masse to prisons is just fine, and that the history of Jews being sent away on trains can be replaced with a current story of Latinos and Latinas being shipped away on buses and planes. I guess we don’t believe in freedom and love and kindness and care for our neighbor.
In our holy scriptures, in Leviticus 19:33-34, it says:
“When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were on of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land if Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
I guess we don’t believe in that either. We cheat them out of due process, kindness, and family. And we treat them as criminals instead of citizens. We don’t really care that God requires love.
We got back on the train, and it was still sunny outside, but suddenly, the world seemed shadowed and cold and heartless.
“take the shackles off my feet so i can dance…i just wanna praise You…i just wanna praise You.”