El Paso Trip Part Two: The Justice System

Travel journal, Day 1:

As I write this, I’m sitting on the plane headed from North Dakota to Texas. We had a long delay due to snow, so it’s been a somewhat stressful afternoon. It probably won’t compare to the difficulty of the upcoming week. I’m trying to emotionally prepare myself for what I’ll see. Moving to another country is always a struggle linguistically, culturally, and socially. I experienced some of these burdens when I lived in Chile last fall. However, I had the benefit of knowing I would return home in a few months, and I had a safe place to live set out for me and a visa with legal protection. Many immigrants, especially those without documentation, face additional fear and financial struggles. I’m going to meet people living in abject poverty after having crossed the border, and my heart already breaks for them. I am so privileged to have been born in a community that I don’t need to flee for safety or economic reasons. I don’t walk down the street and hear people hiss that I need to leave. I have never been called a racial slur by someone with eyes like daggers and a voice full of venom-a byproduct of my whiteness offering me protection. Hearing the stories of people who have experienced these things and more will be incredibly difficult, although not as difficult as actually living through those experiences.

In February, I went to El Paso, Texas, to learn about immigration and border relations. You can read more about my experiences getting to know people who have come to the US without proper paperwork here(HYPERLINK), but this time I’m going to talk about the legal side of immigration.

Half of the trip was centered around meeting people. We talked with undocumented people living in Colonias, toured a homeless shelter, and attended a bilingual church service. Once we had an understanding of the humanity involved in these issues, we observed the systems that create the circumstances.

administration-architecture-bedrock-1000740.jpgVisiting a court and observing a trial was a life-altering experience for me. The courtroom we sat in housed a mass trial for a few dozen men, almost all of them appearing to be of Latin-American heritage. Each defendant received maybe a minute at most speaking with the judge before being sentenced. They were all restrained at their wrists and ankles. As they stood up when the judge entered the room, the courtroom was filled with the sound of rattling chains.

Watching person after person receive a swift sentencing and be lead away in shackles was shocking. I’d never seen something like that in real life. The second court proceeding we sat in on was different. There were fewer sentencings (though a handful together) and the judge spoke to them with a little more kindness, despite offering the same sentence. We spoke with the judge afterwards, and he explained that giving people some kindness in the courtroom was the most that could be done some days. Wider changes took long, painstaking efforts. A regulation he’d helped implement to slightly reduce the maximum amount of time a person caught crossing the border could be detained took years. He encouraged us to support both widespread and interpersonal measures to improve people’s lives; while the first affects more people, the latter has a greater effect on those few who are impacted.

We spoke with a lawyer that afternoon who explained that the light in which many immigrants are painted is often inaccurate. Even undocumented people pay taxes, for starters. This manifests in more obvious ways, such as sales tax at stores, but also in less frequently considered scenarios such as property tax. She also explained that since illegally crossing the border twice is considered a felony, many immigrants with otherwise clean backgrounds are technically felons. This greatly skews data which is then interpreted to make immigrants seem like criminals.

Photographer: Sourced from

What impacted me most from the speaking with the lawyer was the discussion about types of visas. For one thing, the number of visas granted to a particular country does not get updated nearly as frequently as it should to account for both increased demand and population/economic growth in the United States. This leads to cases such as that of Soledad, who had told us she waited for more than twenty years to get a visa before losing her spot on the list when her mother, a citizen, died. The lawyer also mentioned different types of visas. She explained that there are some which are specifically for victims of domestic violence, or human trafficking. However, there are far more applications for these visas each year than the number available. To me, it’s asinine that there is such a strict limit on helping people evade abuse. It’s genuinely horrifying that someone trying to break free from human trafficking could be denied simply because too many others in the same situation have already applied.

The more I learn about immigration issues, the more I support more lenient border policies. We created borders between People crossing the border are humans. A big, varied group of different people with different circumstances. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to try to better their lives?

Images sourced from


I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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