Love and friendship can’t break chains
Tino Santiago’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment came and went the other afternoon.
The scene was a tiny courtroom six floors above downtown Hartford, packed to overflowing with supporters and only enough room on the hard wooden pews to accommodate 30.
More than 50 people, nearly all white, mostly middle-aged and elderly, from the rural Kent and Sharon area, drove 90 minutes or more to support a local family in trouble. They were hoping for the nearly impossible: that a federal immigration judge in the age of Donald Trump and “Build that Wall!” would allow Constantino Santiago, 43, undocumented, here from Oaxaca since 1998, to stay.
A couple of beefy security officers stood by, towering over the diminutive Mexican, who was in gray slacks and blue shirt. Santiago, with close-cropped hair and a goatee, was literally wrapped in chains, starting where the belt on his pants should have been, then down and around the ankles. Asked to raise his right hand before testifying, he had to lift both hands, in a motion as if to catch a ball, looking sheepishly in the last few hours when he still had a chance to avoid deportation.
Up at the high desk in a black robe sat Judge Michael W. Straus. He was sipping from a can of Diet Coke and scribbling notes, leaning back, listening to the translator, his grim, world-weary expression changing little behind the glasses during the three-hour arc of the afternoon.
On the wall behind the judge’s desk was the circular emblem of a bald eagle, the carrion eater that’s the symbol of America, with the word’s “Executive Office for Immigration Review” in a curve along the bottom.
Mary Foden, Santiago’s lawyer, pursued a hardship waiver to allow him to stay with his wife Norma, 37 — from the same small town a half hour by bus from Oaxaca de Juarez in southeastern Mexico — and their three sons, 19, 17 and 7, with varying degrees of autism and behavioral problems. Two have no Spanish language skills and all three have never visited Mexico.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers seized Santiago on Feb. 26, as he arrived at the Kent School to pick up Jason, the middle son. He has been held in an ICE facility in Greenfield, Mass. Foden, an immigration lawyer working this case for free, was attempting to cancel an order to send Santiago back.
Santiago entered the United States through the border near Tijuana. Before working the last three years as a line cook at the landmark Kingsley Tavern in Kent, he had been a waiter and was on the kitchen staff at the Fife n’ Drum restaurant for 15 years. He and Norma, an occasional house cleaner, worked hard to sock away a $70,000 down payment on their house, with its $1,700-a-month mortgage.
I got the feeling that Santiago had probably done chores for, or served food to, nearly everybody who showed up for the hearing.
Santiago’s Jimmy Stewart moment came during a break after the first hour. The judge headed into a back office. Santiago stood up, chains clicking, muffled slightly by his clothing. He turned to the congregation of friends and acquaintances. “Good afternoon everyone,” he said in clear English. “Thank you for being here. I’m sorry to cause such problems.”
“We love you Tino,” one person said, then another and another. A few people started crying.
It was a 2016 DUI that came back to haunt Santiago, when he was tested nearly twice the limit. He started attending AA meetings, but said that work was important, and besides, he realized his problem and stopped drinking. Still, the fact that he hadn’t been to a meeting in over a year gave Straus something to hang his hat on. “This court, frankly, wasn’t very impressed,” he said. “The circumstances of that arrest were very, very troubling. Frankly, it’s a matter of luck that he didn’t hurt anyone.”
The crowd drifted away, quietly. Jordan, the 19-year-old with Type I diabetes, was standing next to his sobbing mother in the front pew. “I knew we were going to lose,” he said to Foden.
So Connecticut has lost another valued, respected, even loved member of a community, and most likely his family has to follow him back to a country his sons do not even know.
This United States might be big-hearted enough to forgive frailties, follies, mistakes, even crimes. But until there’s a sensible immigration policy, hard-working people such as the Santiagos — who are here among us and are our friends — will always have to be on the lookout, always wondering when the ICEmen are going to come.
When they all get caught and sent home, what do we become, besides a police state?
Ken Dixon, political editor and columnist, can be reached at 203-842-2547 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT and on Facebook at kendixonct.hearst.