OPPORTUNITY IN CRISIS: Fighting for Justice in Los Angeles


In light of the current news of the Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Los Angeles Author Amelia Gray gives us insight into the immigration crisis happening in the courtrooms. Gray witnesses first-hand ICE at work and tells us what we can do to fight for the voices of the immigrants isolated in the system. This essay is part of a series that demonstrates PEN Center USA's continued efforts to defend freedom of expression.

One high-rise building in Downtown Los Angeles determines the fate and future of thousands of its residents every day. To navigate the halls of Immigration Court, you first need to head to the fifteenth floor, where the walls are papered with pages of names. Picking one means heading to the proper floor, finding the right metal detector, and slipping into a wooden bench in the courtroom, where one of the city’s 31 immigration judges is hearing one of the many cases they’ll hear that day.

The hearing I witnessed was typical for its type, a hearing for an inmate somewhere in the labyrinth of LA’s prisons. The defendant wasn’t even physically in the courtroom, appearing on a television wheeled into the corner of the room. He is shackled in his jumpsuit, squinting up at the camera, mounted in the upper corner of a concrete wall, where a judge he’s never met will determine his fate.

Back in the courtroom, his brother serves as a witness, his mother and siblings waiting in the hall. The judge approves the petition, but has a word of advice for the man on the screen: “You need to live your life completely perfect without any interaction from law enforcement,” he says.

No traffic tickets, no speeding. No illegal activity of any kind, of course. It’s probably best to avoid law enforcement altogether. Best to not get the police involved for anything, to avoid the fear you’ll feel when the officer asks for your identification.

“lo prometo,” the man says. I promise.

“Good luck to you,” the judge says. Good luck returning to a neighborhood where affiliative crimes can mean being slapped with a street gang charge for being on the wrong street corner at the wrong time. Good luck, given the fact that Latinos are disproportionately likely to be stopped and frisked, and most likely out of all racial groups in LA to be arrested following a stop.

“Can I ask a question?” the man asks, already exhibiting the care he will have to practice in the future. “Am I gonna be released or am I going to have to stay overnight in jail?”

“The department may disagree with my decision and may appeal,” the judge responds. “You may get word to leave tonight or tomorrow.” The department, meaning the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. If the man has been speaking to his fellow inmates, this is where his heart will sink. Former inmates have reported ICE agents, likely using information they received from LA Sheriff's Department computers, conducting raids at their home addresses and showing up at their children's’ schools. Immigrants scheduled for release have found themselves unexpectedly transferred from LASD to ICE custody without notice or reason.

The witness for the defense asks if he can step forward and speak to his brother. He moves forward with uncertain steps, speaking directly at the TV before he is directed to the microphone mounted to a desk. He speaks quickly, in Spanish, as if the opportunity will be taken from him at any second. Immigration custody works very differently from typical LAPD confinement; when an inmate goes into ICE custody, family members often have no way of knowing where the detainee is, and detention can happen for an indefinite amount of time.

The current political climate is at a crisis point, but there are opportunities worth fighting for in Los Angeles and beyond. Ordinary people, citizens, and noncitizens alike, fear the outcome of cultivated racism in the form of campaign promises. There is an opportunity, however, to be proactive and not reactive in reform, in supporting groups that have worked for years to support individuals and communities who have been failed for years by a broken system.

Reform has recent precedent. In 2013, New York City began to offer lawyers for detained immigrants by creating a partnership with three public defender services: the Legal Aid Society, Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project found that detainees are ten times more likely to prevail in court with representation. The project has laid the foundation for constitutional reform and common-sense decisions that work to keep ICE in check.

Here are some things you can do today:

  • Seek out groups doing the work in your local area. In LA, ICE out of LA is a good place to start, and their Members List doubles as an excellent resource of hard-working groups that would welcome your support. When it comes to activism, don’t reinvent the wheel; look to those who already have the car rolling.

  • Learn more about how California’s SB 54, the California Values Act, will work to scale back ICE entanglement in hospitals, schools and jails. Call your local representatives and voice your support.

  • Call LA’s Mayor Garcetti and urge him to support a fully inclusive LA Justice Fund.

  • Learn more about what cities like Santa Ana are doing to make Sanctuary Cities a reality.

  • No matter where you are, call on local reps to encourage them to support and expand programs designed to paint a thick line between federal immigration enforcement and local law enforcement.

Know your rights:

Everyone has the opportunity to support justice for all. The privilege of free expression comes with a responsibility which anyone who calls themselves free would be wise to consider.



We want you to join us and become a Champion of Free Expression.

Your tax-deductible donation will support our current literary programs and our new domestic advocacy initiative to celebrate the power of words to inform, inspire, and create a better world.