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Immigration And The Letter Of The Law

by Tom C. Rawlings

LET US WALK GENTLY into a fire ant bed this morning and talk about immigration.

Now let me assure you, I don’t mean to stir things up.

This is, after all, a column written by a judge. Nothing herein is meant to endorse or condemn any particular immigration policy or proposals, including but not limited to building walls, granting amnesty, creating guest-worker programs, deporting illegals, granting or denying state and/or federal benefits, and all such matters considered ejusdem generis. In fact, I decided some time ago that the problem of illegal (OK, “undocumented”) immigration is, like certain aspects of marriage, one of life’s unsolvables that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company.

Then I returned to court the morning after Labor Day to find our metaphoric mound had been built in my backyard. And boy, was it huge. That weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came to Emanuel, Candler and surrounding counties and detained several hundred Mexican nationals in this country without proper papers. Many of them were employees of Crider Poultry in the tiny Emanuel County town of Stillmore, right in the heart of my juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

The raids themselves have been widely covered in the media, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to CNN and Univision. To summarize briefly, customs officers had information that many of the workers at Crider were using false documents. They obtained the names and home addresses of those workers and, beginning Labor Day weekend, conducted raids over several days. According to media reports, more than 100 men associated with Crider were detained for deportation. According to some of the folks I’ve talked with who are involved in the immigrant community, up to 400 or more undocumented Mexican men were taken in the raids.

This fire ant nest is in my backyard

Now, what does that have to do with me? Illegal immigration is a federal issue, right? Why should a juvenile court judge be concerned?

The answer to those questions, I’ve found, is that the immigration raids have had a substantial effect on our local schools and our local social-service agencies. And those matters are my bailiwick.

My friend Luis Machado, who works part time with the Emanuel County Schools migrant education program, explains it like this. Many of the men seized in the immigration raids have been here for several years and have wives and children. In the Mexican culture, he says, it’s typical for the men to work while the women stay home and raise the children. So when the raids occurred, you had several hundred breadwinners removed and sent to detention for deportation back to Mexico, leaving several hundred families with no means of support.

Moreover, Machado says, when immigration officials came knocking, the fearful families went into hiding. Some went for days with little food or water. He tracked down the mother of a set of twins who attend Swainsboro Middle School and found they had been cowering in the forest with their mother and stepfather for several nights while ICE search helicopters flew overhead.

The statistics back up Machado’s anecdote. Neighboring Candler County is the home of the Metter school system. The week before the raids, the Hispanic student enrollment was 287. In the week following the raids, according to school social worker Duane Tomlin, 101 of those students went missing.

All but 18 have slowly trickled back into the schools, he says. Duane and his school system colleagues are required to educate those kids. I’m required to make sure they’re going to school, are safe, and are staying out of trouble. That’s a hard task to accomplish when they’re hiding out or scattered.

After raids, thieves come calling

Our state agencies try to help these families within the limits of the law, but for the most part that task is handled by churches and charities. Rey Morales, who heads Hispanic outreach for the Savannah Diocese of the Catholic Church, has helped with the church’s effort to bring in truckloads of food and supplies for the women and children left behind. Many of these families are suffering tremendously, he says. First came the immigration agents. After that came the thieves who broke into their trailers and apartments, taking the few possessions they had and the money they had squirreled away under mattresses. The thieves counted on these families being afraid to ask for help from the police, he says. And others are taking advantage of these families, sometimes folks who should be their friends. Machado tells me he witnessed an American woman of Mexican descent offer to “keep” the newborn children of two young undocumented Mexican women and help the women with bus fare back to Mexico. He intervened and put a stop to what he felt was nothing more than an offer to trade bus fare for babies.

Morales and Machado say that many of these families will get by as they’ve always done. Some will find their way back to Mexico, while others may find help from relatives and friends in other migrant-rich states such as North Carolina. Sue Bragg, my school truancy officer and social worker, says she has already heard from two of her high school students that they will be dropping out to go to work and support their mothers. Should any of the mothers of young children be unable to support them without the fathers around, I’m sure we will be able to assist them by placing the children in foster care.

Ripping out roots can be messy

I believe in enforcing the law. But I’m often forced to recall the words of one of my favorite novelists, Michael Malone, from a fiction work I read almost 20 years ago: “Time’s Witness.” I can never remember the exact quote, but it goes something like this: The letter of the law is pure. But the spirit of the law is as muddy as water with living things growing in it. You can’t see what you’re pulling out, and in trying to pull out one plant, you’re liable to rip out the roots of all the others, he says.

Retired Augusta Catholic priest Edward Frank says this problem arose thanks to “silent permission.” For so many years we allowed illegal migrants to come here, to work and build families, to put down roots. And now, as we attempt to “weed” those communities of those working here illegally, it’s darn hard to do without disrupting a lot of lives. I hope we can find some long-term solutions to our immigration dilemmas. If you have any, please let those in charge know. In the meantime, does anybody know any good remedies for fire ant bites?

About The Author

Tom C. Rawlings is a juvenile court judge for the Middle Judicial District in Sandersville. He has clerked at the Georgia Court of Appeals, worked as a civil litigator at a Columbus law firm, and managed a textile company. He is a past president of the Middle District Bar Association and ran for the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2004. Since 2000, he has presided over the juvenile court for Candler, Emanuel, Jefferson, Toombs and Washington counties.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.