BY ERIC SANTANA, Contributing Writer
“You must see the immigration court judge,” she replied, struggling to keep a large amount of chewing tobacco in her mouth. “You don’t sound Mexican to me. What the judge want you for?”
She directed me to put both hands on the wall for a pat frisk, and I was afraid she was going to drool that black spit on my back. “You got anything in your pockets?” she asked, as she brought her whole six-foot-something figure to completely eclipse my five-foot-seven frame.
She stuck her fleshy hands in my pockets and almost broke the linings. That was one woman who would never be a victim of domestic violence, I thought.
“Wait. Did you just say ‘court’? Now?” I asked in bewilderment. “Don’t I have to be driven to the city for that?”
“Nope,” she responded. “The Judge is right here in Downstate. You don’t even need to worry about metal-detectors and X-Ray machines.”
Downstate Correctional Facility was a men’s Maximum-Security Reception facility in Beacon, New York. If you were sentenced for a serious crime in New York City, then you were probably processed there. All prisoners were thoroughly evaluated medically, educationally, psychologically, and legally. We sat with a corrections counselor who would assess how much of a threat we were, while entering our family and emergency contacts into our file. A mandatory DNA sample was taken from each of us (which cost us $50), and all types of surcharges and encumbrances were placed on our accounts. The results of this month-long process helped the Department of Corrections determine which prison the prisoner fit into the best.
Unbeknown to me, Downstate also had an actual Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal courtroom within its gates. It was next to the visiting room, within a side door that looked more like a janitor’s closet than the ostentatious doors I associated with courts.
Big Bertha knocked on the door and an actual ICE bailiff opened.
“Martinez?” he asked her, and a brief custody exchange happened. Big Bertha sat outside while I disappeared inside with my new owners.
The courtroom, though small, looked exactly like what a courtroom is supposed to look like. All the walls were covered in wood panels—a rarity in prison since everything is built to withstand an arsonist’s mischief. Behind the judge’s bench was a massive circular emblem of the American bald eagle with Department of Homeland Security written around it. In God We Trust was carved into the wood above everything else, whether you agreed with the statement or not.
As I made my way to my place at the table, my attention went immediately to the backside of a young woman who was standing at the U.S. Attorney’s table. That was the first buxom woman without a uniform that I had seen for more than a year. Her form-fitting office attire didn’t hide any of her curves. White women were seldom built like this, which only accentuated her allure.
When I looked up, the judge was peering at me from above his glasses. He continued his glare as I reached my chair, and his eyes guided me to my place. I sat in embarrassment, and the judge went back to writing whatever it was that he was writing.
We waited in a long uncomfortable silence for the judge to begin. This was his domain, and he took his time looking through papers and making notes while we all just stared at him.
His Honor’s seat was placed about two feet higher than everybody else’s and literally looked down upon us. The label on his bench displayed his WASPy name (Chase). His hair was WASPy blonde. His eyes were of a WASPy color. And his demeanor was WASPily assertive. This was a man whose WASPiness oozed through his very blue veins and pink cheeks.
“Ahem,” he said, not really clearing his throat but demanding our attention. “Have we no defense counsel for the alien?” he asked Miss Derriere.
“Not yet. Your Honor,” she answered, while looking at me through her peripheral vision to avoid eye contact. She was probably a victim of frequent catcalls and saw me as an opportunity to get rid of another insolent Hispanic misogynist.
“Well, I guess we may begin this preliminary hearing. Where’s the interpreter?” the judge asked no one in particular as he looked around the room. “And where are we shipping this alien, anyway?”
“I’m not in possession of his file yet, Your Honor,” said the lady, with exaggerated deference; “and I don’t know where Mrs. Alvarez—the interpreter—is right now.”
“Your Honor,” I interrupted, making everyone look at me in surprise, as if their cat began talking to them. I purposely emphasized my native New Yorker accent. “I don’t require an interpreter, and I don’t have an attorney because I wasn’t given a chance to contact one.” They all continued staring at me for several long seconds as if they didn’t understand what I just said.
“I didn’t even know I was subject to deportation, Your Honor.”
The judge continued searching through all his paperwork until he found the appropriate file. “Eric Santana, convicted for Assault 1st degree. Is this you?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” I responded. “You may also add that I arrived to the U.S. when I was seven and have two parents who are U.S. citizens.”
The judge was visibly annoyed and exhaled aloud. He had clearly heard everything before and had a rehearsed answer for all of it. “Mr. Martinez, I don’t make the law; I only make decisions based upon it.” He flipped through my file and pulled out a sheet with the pertinent information. “The law says that I must send you back to your country. But you, since this is a great nation that adheres to the rule of law and gives everyone an equal chance, have the right to defend yourself through the courts. We will adjourn this hearing to give you a chance to retain counsel.”
Not having a lawyer was the least of my worries. They were going to send me to a place I didn’t know. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, I’ve been Americanized, and even my own ‘homeland’ was foreign to me. My parents and siblings were American. My taste in music was very American. Even the only nerdy, hippie, caring woman who had captured my heart was American.
My very core was infiltrated and fully assimilated to American culture. I was going to miss McDonald’s and the corner bodega. I would not be able to hear Steve Innskeep and Ira Glass on NPR as I religiously did for years. I was going to miss the frequent trips to Six Flags and hanging out in Wildwood. I would be torn away from my U.S. citizen family and transplanted where I would seldom see them.
“You okay?” asked Big Bertha, as we walked back to the housing area through the quiet corridors of the facility.
“I don’t know,” I answered half-heartedly, continuing my walk to an uncertain place, uncertain circumstances, and an uncertain future.
“You’ll be all right, kid,” she said. “You’ll be all right.”
ERIC SANTANA is one of PrisonWriters’s Contributing Writers.