This is my last column for the Current. In a few weeks, I will move to Virginia to teach at a law school. I want to thank those people who have taken the time to read my observations, especially those who have commented on my essays on the website, by email, or in person. I am not sure I have changed any minds, but I hope to have at least brought certain issues to people’s attention and generated a dialogue that can lead to greater appreciation for other individuals’ points of view.
If there is one recurring criticism of my views, it is that I am too concerned about the rights of criminals, immigrants, and poor people — people who, according to my critics, are not entitled to anything because they have failed to live up to their responsibilities and should be grateful for any demonstration of generosity they are shown. I reject this philosophy. I think we need to be far more humble before we judge other people.
As I argued in my last column, I think we all underestimate the role of luck, fate, and circumstance in our lives. One of my favorite housing cases started out as a garden-variety eviction — he didn’t pay his rent and was being evicted — but he had a different demeanor than the typical Legal Aid client. He was from Finland and had been living the American dream: six-figure salary as a management consultant, big house in Austin, beautiful wife. He got hit with a major illness that almost killed him and lost it all. He was using his savings to buy time to recover his health and his career, but he had miscalculated and run out of money. He just needed me to drag out the process long enough for a rich friend in London to wire him money — as I said, he was not the typical Legal Aid client — but what I remember most is running into him at the library. He approached me to express his surprise and gratitude that I was bothering to help him and how it changed his worldview. He would never have thought of helping people when he was at the top, he told me, and could not believe that there were people willing to help him now that he found himself at the bottom.
I believe that many people who blame the least fortunate are ignorant of how the other half lives because they have never had to walk a mile in their shoes. I also think it gives them the false assurance that they are really in control of their lives. But, perhaps most of all, it gives the privileged the moral justification to entrench their advantage and to ignore the problems around them. After all, if it is the poor’s fault that they are poor or mistreated, then we have no obligation to help them.
To the extent people are concerned about accountability in our society, why shouldn’t that accountability apply most to those in positions of power? I have tried to argue in these columns that police, courts, and government officials manipulate and violate the laws when suitable to their purpose just as often as the downtrodden, yet there does not seem to be the same clamor for law and order when it comes to the powerful.
The abuses at the Port Isabel Detention Center are a good example. This paper has written about the hunger strikes at the facility to protest the conditions. The leader of the strike was violently removed from his cell by five guards and transferred to another facility on the morning he was scheduled to meet with a representative of Amnesty International. They attempted to prosecute him for attacking the guards that morning, but that prosecution was dropped after a mistrial when a majority of the jurors did not believe the government’s case.
A number of other detainees have given specific, detailed accounts of mistreatment and abuse by PIDC guards, including being slammed against walls and floors, punched in the face, and dragged across gravel. Some of the worst abuse comes from the denial of necessary medical care for detainees under government watch. One detainee was quickly deported to Jamaica after he swallowed a piece of metal in detention and ICE did not want to perform surgery. Another was left with no sensation on the left side of his body and chronic head pain after a botched surgery, and remains in detention because ICE refuses to treat his condition while his consulate will not issue him travel papers until they do. Yet another detainee was deported to Africa with full-blown AIDS after they failed to give him the drug cocktail needed by those who are HIV positive.
The Department of Homeland Security purposefully takes people from Boston, New York, and other cities in the Northeast to South Texas in order to separate them from their attorneys, family, and friends, and to put them in a place where there is less scrutiny by the media, nonprofit organizations, and the general public. They also know that all cases of detainees at PIDC are heard by one judge whose rulings are heavily slanted against immigrants. I wrote previously about how he ordered a Nigerian deported despite knowing that he was likely to be tortured, in violation of our commitment to the Convention Against Torture. Though we were able to get the decision overturned, the judge’s failure to adhere properly to the law caused months of needless suffering. When are these officials and guards and this judge going to be held responsible for their misbehavior? Why are people who are so unforgiving to the least fortunate willing to look the other way when the abuses come from the powerful?
I have no objection to punishing people for misbehavior, as long as it is done responsibly and with a sense of compassion. But I also believe that those with greater positions of responsibility should be held to a higher standard. Until we learn to hold accountable those at the top as fervently as we do those at the bottom, we will fail to create a truly just society. •
Aaron Haas is a former staff attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. His opinions do not reflect those of TRLA. Although we’ll miss him in the Current’s pages, we’re happy to know he’ll be shaping part of the next generation of lawyers. You can find his entire series of Reasonable Doubt columns online at sacurrent.com.