What a Day in an Immigration Courtroom Taught Me

By: Nicole, Riley Way Council Member, TYWLS of Astoria 

As we waited to enter the courthouse to witness immigration hearings, we were buzzing with excitement. The Riley’s Way Council received the opportunity to view these hearings through a partnership with KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), an organization of pro-bono attorneys that works to protect children who enter the U.S. and ensure that no child appears in a courtroom without just representation.  We had been working on our project of breaking down false narratives of immigrants through spreading kindness since last year, so we were excited to see how that played in a real courtroom. However, when we entered 26 Federal Plaza, the environment was clinical and cold. The process of checking in resembled TSA at an airport. Of course, the courthouse had to take measures to ensure the security of all of the people who entered, but I could not help but feel like it would be so scary for someone who is new to this country and can hardly speak the language. When we got inside, we split up into groups to see different courtrooms in session. We watched various trials, all of different lengths, representing different people who came to the United States for different reasons. As I sat there observing the cases, I wondered what being in that position must have felt like for the people at trial. The language spoken is not your native language and even though you are offered a translator, you are still considered an outsider. The impersonal and fast-paced environment of the courthouse and often not being able to understand or speak English and being away from your family or not having a place to stay at all create this sensation of not fitting in, of being alone. 


All of those things that I saw on the trip that day, the hearings, the faces of all the people who entered and left the courtroom, the way it looked made me realize how privileged we all are to be insiders. And by insiders, I mean people who speak English and who understand, at least somewhat, how the American legal system works. And it made me realize that even though we live in a city where there are so many different kinds of people, where we think we have seen everything there is to see, I realized that equality and diversity are so much more complicated than what we see in our daily lives. That just because we live an epicenter of diversity, does not mean we see the complexities of what it takes to become “legal” in this country. To become an insider.


My one big takeaway from all of this is that you have to see it to experience it. You can read articles about immigration and watch the news and all and that is commendable, but doing all those things will never simulate seeing the faces of the very people who are scrutinized and criminalized for seeking safety just like the rest of us. Witnessing these hearings inspired me to work with the Riley’s Way Council to help immigrants in any way we can. Whether that be through sharing their stories on social media or online to get others to see what we saw that day, or by helping immigrants directly and donating resources necessary to improving immigrants’ quality of life, at the border, and throughout the states.