I study the lines on their faces, tracing them in the air in my mind. Lines of stress, confusion, age. A young Cuban couple with a small child sit immediately beside me, the husband’s brows furrowed. Across from them, an attorney gives them a tired look as he speaks, often bluntly, about their situation. An older gentleman, his face is etched with proof of age. How many times has he done this? How many clients walk into this office expecting some sort of help or relief but instead are forced to face the harsh truth that nothing can be done for them? I can’t imagine having to sit down and tell the hundreds of people looking for opportunities and asylum, some sense of a happier life, the improbability of that reality every day, again and again. It’s enough to make anyone break down in sadness, anger, frustration, or some combination of the three at the unfairness of it all. So how did h—
“Can you translate that?”
…what? My inner monologue is interrupted by the attorney’s question. Right. That’s what I’m here for. “Uhh, I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” I ask, my mind scurrying to gain context, hoping I unconsciously picked up some of what he said.
A large part of my responsibilities at CCLS has been taking on the role of translator for those in the office that don’t speak Spanish. I anticipated difficulty in translating legal terms but not how grueling it would be to confirm clients’ worst nightmares in any language.
I look the couple in the eyes as I tell them that the wife and daughter have received orders of removal despite them fearing for their lives in Cuba. I’ve heard similar stories over and over again. Some sort of political association gone wrong—a job, a family friend, a group—followed by death threats, beatings, unjust detainment. I watch their faces closely. The wife has barely moved, her mouth a thin white line but otherwise almost neutral. The young daughter is thankfully oblivious, drawing on a small scrap of paper. Her father, on the other hand, grows increasingly frustrated as I continuously repeat their fate at the request of the attorney.
The husband wasn’t ever in immigration court proceedings, just his wife and daughter. The attorney reminds him that he won’t be affected, but he doesn’t care; his entire existence as he knows it will be affected. The fear of his entire world crumbling down is palpable. “You’re supposed to be able to help us,” he says in Spanish, his eyes glossy but an edge in his voice. “You’re the attorney.” But it’s no use. I translate the same explanation for what felt like the tenth time.
At the time, my own frustration with the attorney built. I wanted nothing but to stop delivering his repetitive, gloomy messages. Help them! screamed a voice in my head. His impatience and harshness tore at me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been doing it as many years as he had, would I too be so unmoved? Would that be the only way to keep myself from becoming hopeless as these very real people lose their lives, figuratively and perhaps literally?
As the days have passed, the more I learn about the injustices of the entire immigration process, the more my frustration has shifted toward the laws and institutions that don’t see the people they affect. Give me your tired and poor, those yearning to breathe free? Maybe one day, but a system that currently turns away those as needy and fearful as the family I met that day is unacceptable in a country like this. The attorney didn’t do anything for them because he couldn’t, and for all I know, the jaded and seemingly unfeeling way of dealing with it is his own way of coping.
After the family left, I rose from my chair, trembling slightly. The attorney turned to me and with a small chuckle remarked, “The wife didn’t seem affected at all, did she? Almost expressionless.” I shrugged, but I was still running their faces through my head. I found myself unable to describe that despite the lines of stress on her husband’s forehead and the lack thereof on hers, her eyes reflected a sense of despondency and acceptance unlike I have ever seen. I think he missed that.
There were questions I could have asked him. Maybe I should have. Instead, I nodded, accepted his thanks, and left the room, shaky and uneasy.