Back around 2014 or so I was invited, along with my co-coach on the immigration detainee hotline Karen Castillo, to visit Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) Headquarters (aka The Belly of the Beast.)
We were to meet with the Field Office Directors from across the country to discuss the lessons Karen and I had learned while supervising the American Bar Association’s Immigration Detainee Hotline. People who were in deportation proceedings and were locked up by ICE called us to get information on how immigration courts worked, what types of relief might be available to them, and what evidence they needed to present to the Immigration Judge to avoid being deported. Because most of the facilities used by ICE to lock up immigrants were rural county jails with no access to immigration lawyers it was common that they only access detainees had to legal information was through our hotline. In the nine years I supervised the hotline with my co-coaches Karen and Nicole Vinoya Gasmen, we calculated that we handled 42,000 calls. We also filed several complaints every week about how people were being treated in the ICE detention facilities which meant that anyone from the ABA was usually persona non grata at ICE festivities. Wanting to take advantage of this opportunity to build bridges (and catering to my pathetic need to be liked by everyone) I began my presentation to a sullen collection of Field Office Directors by trying to establish common ground, pointing out how both ICE and the lawyers representing detainees had a common goal, protecting the rights of detainees in the detention centers.
One of the FODs interrupted me, “You sir, are pathologically optimistic.”
Undeterred I plowed ahead, trying another angle to show them I did not view them as enemies. “I also want to point out that when interns ask me whether they should consider applying to work for ICE I always encourage them to do so, because I want decisions within ICE to be made by people with good hearts, not a bunch of meanies.”
Another Field Office Director raised his hand. “In the scenario you just painted, I take it that we are the bunch of meanies?”
“Well I don’t know you personally, sir, so this will have to remain an exercise in self-classification.”
I wouldn’t call our meeting overly productive, but they did seem responsive to one important point. I informed them that the most common complaint we received from people in detention was that when they put in a request for some relief, or filed a complaint with ICE about how they were being treated, they usually received no response whatsoever, which they found extremely frustrating. “I am pretty sure that the reason they receive no response from you is because you take one look at it and think, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ and you throw it away. But by failing to respond to them with the reasons why it is ridiculous, they remain convinced that they are entitled to something, and you are standing in the way of them getting what is rightful owed them. So please, these are big boys and big girls, they can take ‘No,’ for an answer. Please communicate the “No and the Why.’”
And that reminds me of this:
A cautionary tale for sunny optimists
I have discovered that not everyone enjoys being around a happy-go-lucky optimist like myself. Once a year my California National Guard unit would be out to the edge of Death Valley at Fort Irwin, California, always in August to take full advantage of the oven-like weather. One day I thought things were as bad as they could get as I sat behind the wheel of my front-line ambulance, an open jeep with room for two stretchers in back. We had driven since dawn with no known plan or destination, hour after hour, green triangular bandages tied as bandannas across our mouths like cowboy bank robbers, but they weren’t helping much and we were still sucking in dust as we trailed behind a long line of tanks, slowing clanking their way passed the same rocky scrub brush that looked exactly like the rocky scrub we had driven through twenty miles ago. But things took a turn for the worse once we parked because we did not move. We sat there for 24 hours, then 48 hours, trapped in the tormenting heat. As the third dusk settled in on us in the middle of nowhere, people were losing their minds, whipsawed between boredom and heat stroke and I was sitting with a half dozen dusty, dazed soldiers in tee shirts with their pants rolled up over their knees as they picked sullenly at their canned dinner rations. I started a sentence with, “Well, it could be worse because . . .” And a deranged tank driver leaped up, took two giant strides toward me, grabbed my shirt, jerked me to my feet and stuck his finger in my face. “You know what I hate about you cheerful sonsabitches? You step in horse shit and get all excited because you think you’re about to see a pony. Well I’ve stepped in a lot of shit in my day and never found that goddamned pony so shut the fuck up, Sunshine!”
He was right about the pony, but I kept that to myself.