A Destination Deferred–Part 2 of 2

Selwyn Chu
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is available here.

From the outside looking in, the CCA Detention Facility evokes the image and ambiance of a dystopian housing project – sparse, unsparing, and impenetrable. Appropriately, the view is screened by a chain link fence, lined at its inner base and upper rungs with razor wire that encloses the perimeter of the facility. Posted at the entrance gate are four rectangular signs, two on each side of the gate in neat, bilingual symmetry: “WARNING” on the left; “AVISO” on the right. High above, just behind the fence, the American flag and the state flag of California fly at full staff, prima facie vestiges of authority and import overlooking a faceless jumble of angular, low-rise buildings. The complex has the earthy, no-color complexion of stone and concrete, an aesthetic albatross set against the backdrop of blue sky and green hills there on the southeastern fringes of San Diego, barely north of the Mexican border.

Inside the prison, several hundred inmates who risked life and limb to come to America from across the border and beyond await their day in court. One chance to convince an audience of one that they should be allowed to stay in this country. While they wait, they are wards of the United States government. Confined to a cell, they look to their next hearing with a certain tunnel vision, their thoughts wishful on the best of days, foreboding on the worst.

The inmate I am meeting on this day is from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa I had never heard of until a week ago. He has a master calendar hearing tomorrow and I am to be there to  represent him. After getting buzzed through two sets of gates, I enter the lobby and approach the security desk to state my appearance. The guard there processes me and sends me through security. I proceed up two flights of stairs. At the top is another door and again I am buzzed in. On the other side is a long, dimly lit hallway leading into several more adjacent hallways. The walls are windowless and bare, but for the occasional leaflet posted to direct visitors to whichever unit is their destination. Wherever I go, the hollow click-clack of my footsteps follows.

Minutes later, I am sitting in an interview room. Across the table from me is a slight man in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. His English is surprisingly good. Within ten minutes of making his acquaintance, I find out he has no need of me; his family here in the United States has hired him a private attorney. At this point, the meeting should end. There is, after all, nothing more to be said if I am not representing him. And it is probably only right that I do not. Casa Cornelia’s clients are those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation and this one has a family that apparently can.

Still, it is another hour and a half before I shake his hand, wish him well, and leave. Initially, he is not sure anything was signed with the lawyer his family hired, and I have him call them to make sure. He seems reluctant, almost embarrassed, to turn me away. And I in turn have no desire to be turned away. Not if it can be helped. It is possible no money has changed hands yet. He could still fire his attorney and retain us. Surely it is not too late. Some part of me  believes this, and another part of me, more earnest but just as irrational, insists the man is better off with me as his advocate.

I go ahead and go through the motions of an introductory meeting. He asks questions, and I do my best to answer them. I do not get the man’s story. That is for a second meeting that I know will never come. For this meeting, a screening summary was not ready in time, and not even the basic facts are known to me. I do not know what happened in Eritrea that he left. I do not know what he fears will happen if he goes back. I do not ask. And he does not tell.

It’s the stories you miss that often leave you wondering. I wonder what life was like for him in Eritrea. I wonder what he went through to reach these borders. I wonder how much of what I have told him about this process and these laws makes sense. And I wonder if that process and those laws will give him what he wants, and perhaps deserves. Most of all I wonder if he understands why he is here, in a blue jumpsuit, surrounded by white walls and bolted doors and fluorescent lights on ceilings. Because I am not sure I do.

I watch as the corrections officer takes him back to his unit. There would be no hearing to attend the next day.