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Immigration Enforcement Doesn't Belong in the Courthouse

Reverend Elmer Zavala Gonzalez,
Minister Member of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery
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April 18, 2014

In a matter of minutes, I went from seeking justice, to bearing witness, to being racially profiled.

My youngest son who is 3 years old often accompanies me as I do my duties as a minister member of our Mid-Kentucky Presbytery in Louisville. We visit new members of the congregation to welcome them. We attend community events and celebrations. Sometimes, he comes with me as I lend a hand to a congregant in need of assistance.

On a sunny day last October, I offered to take one congregant, we’ll call her Lilia, to the courthouse in Louisville to deal with a traffic offense. My son came along with me. Little did I know the challenge I would face that morning to do the right thing – both as a minister and as a parent.

We arrived at the courthouse and walked up the long set of stairs and under four tall Roman columns into the main lobby of this imposing building and into the courtroom assigned to Lilia’s hearing. We were there for only a few minutes when someone opened the door to the courtroom and asked for Lilia, who is an undocumented immigrant, by name. She left and a few minutes later I decided to follow her because she hadn’t returned.

Soon I saw Lilia walking toward me accompanied by a man. Her face was red, and clearly she was upset. The man was with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), although I didn’t know it at the time because he had no identification badge. As they approached, she tried talking to me, hoping I would help her understand what was happening.

When I asked this individual why immigration would be involved with a case in local traffic court, the man who still had not identified himself to me as an ICE agent turned and began to question me. I have an accent, and my skin is dark. The agent asked, “Where are you from?” (Honduras, I replied). “Do you have legal documents?” (Yes, I replied).

He then asked me to show my documents. When I asked him why he was asking me to show documents, he threatened me, saying “You know, if you don’t have documents, I can detain you and send your child to Child Protective Services.” To avoid traumatizing my son, I showed the agent my residency card. Lilia was taken away and eventually detained for deportation.

I am disturbed on many levels by what transpired. This was a case of brazen racial profiling, and this federal agent acted in an intimidating way towards all of us. Lilia came to court that day just to answer a traffic offense. I came to help her, and my son was innocent to all of it, in the arms of his father. The official did not need to act this way.

I am convinced that my dark skin and my accented English prompted the agent to begin asking me where I was from and if I had documents. When I asked for a simple explanation for his decision to detain Lilia and to question me, he could have answered me in a simple, direct manner and showed me his identification. Instead, he chose to intimidate us, focusing on the presence of my young son.

It was not necessary to threaten me with detention and taking my son away. But this intimidation put me in a difficult position. Although I would never do something intentionally that would traumatize or hurt my son, I knew that what the agent was doing was wrong. I did what I thought was best as a parent: I became quiet and showed the official my documents.

Now I feel a moral imperative to raise this publicly because I know that hundreds of people in Kentucky face situations like this daily. Mine did not result in a separation from my son and wife, but many of these interactions do. That this occurred at a courthouse, where individuals come to seek justice and to settle their obligations is an outrage.

What does ICE enforcement at courthouses say to immigrants, and in fact to people whose skin is dark or who may have an accent? That they may be subject to ill treatment and discrimination for coming to a place that is supposed to be dedicated to justice? This makes no sense. Courthouses should not be locations for ICE enforcement.

Now, although I will still accompany a congregant to the Louisville courthouse to pay a traffic citation, sadly, I do not take my son. I do, however, ask another pastor or congregant, one whose skin is white, to accompany us both.

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