Friday, May 8, 2009

Immigration Law: "The Quality of Mercy...

.... is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice..."

It's hard to overlook the anti-semitism that follows in this otherwise lovely speech by Portia in The Merchant of Venice, but I woke this morning thinking about her words. Last night, we left Los Angeles after dinner for the drive down to Laguna Beach, to lengthen our weekend by a day, and found ourselves listening to The Story by Dick Gordon on NPR. This particular story was that of John and Lourdes Adams, caught up in the nightmare of immigration law. Lourdes, who arrived legally from Guatemala almost two decades ago, allowed her visa to expire, was briefly taken in and questioned by immigration officials years ago, and failed to show up for a court hearing. The judge, back then, and unbeknownst to her, issued a deportation order. Still living in America, she married, had two children, divorced...

Flash forward. Long, involved story, whose upshot is that Lourdes marries John Adams, three or four years ago, and seeks to update her immigration papers. Arriving to pick up her green card--already on the desk and visible to the couple--the back story shows up on the computer monitor. Lourdes is arrested on the spot and carted off to jail. After two weeks of incarceration, with his wife going crazy with the stress, John buys her a flight to Guatemala simply to get her out of jail.

Big mistake. Outside America again, she now has no legal protection under American law. Her children are with John in America. She has no right of return for ten years, no right of appeal for five. The family is torn apart, and John is helpless in the face of the law.

Okay, I may have got some details wrong. It's worth listening to the podcast of this heart-wrenching story. It's also an outrageous one, guaranteed to make you angry. John readily admits that Lourdes broke the law, albeit unknowingly. He even grants that she should be penalized for her actions. His argument is that the punishment far exceeds the crime.

Which brings me back to the quality of mercy. As the nightmare of Franz Kafka's The Trial reminds us--and, on numerous occasions, the still timely stories of Charles Dickens--the law is nothing more than a system. Without the human quality of compassion, it is hollow, empty of meaning, a structure that exists for its own sake. Applied without mercy, it is capable of great, impersonal, senseless harm--as the story of John and Lourdes Adams shows. To punish a woman with ten years' separation from her family for a long-forgotten peccadillo is to abuse the intention of the law to serve as a social institution that protects the well-being of the citizens who create it.

Justice, I believe, is greater than "the law." It is the quality of compassion--or "mercy," as Portia suggests--that should season justice in this case, as in countless other applications of our immigration laws. To apply them mindlessly, as our officials are empowered to do, is to make a mockery not only of their intention, but also of the history of the country whose interests they were written to serve. We may well be, as we so often boast, "a nation of laws"; we are also, absent compassion, a nation of heartless, nit-picking bureaucrats.


TaraDharma said...

this post brought many thoughts to me: as a 10th grader it was my english class assignment to memorize Portia's courtroom speech.
Your observation that it is insane and cruel to apply the law without mercy and reason is right on the money. I missed that story on NPR, not sure I want to endure the misery of listening to the podcast. I recently watched a movie, the title escapes me, where a similar situation occurred, and it was heartbreaking and senseless.
one of the reasons gay people need to be legally married is to keep their forgein born partners in this country - many cruel separations out there.
thanks for an inspiring post, Peter.

buddhist amulet said...

Your post brought me some thoughts.