Americans can easily fall into patterns of voyeurism, particularly with immigrants unlike themselves. Why is that?

By Melvin J. Butler II, Medill, Immigrant Connect

“You got any keys or coins or anything like that?” the security officer asks.

“No, no…. I took everything out of my pockets. It’s all in the tray,” I reply as I pat myself down to confirm my statement.

The officer makes a small grimace and waves his hand as if to say, “don’t worry about it.” I pick up my checked belongings, move past the metal detector, and walk over to the long row of benches where the rest of my classmates are sitting. The plastic black benches have a shine that reminds me of the smooth finish of the playground slide at my old elementary school. I’d become so accustomed to experiencing that exhilarating rush from the slide that all it took was a similar plastic shine to take me back to those elementary school days. Even at 20 years old, while sitting in an immigration court, I can feel that excitement starting to bubble. But something tells me that what I was feeling isn’t quite excitement.

While sitting in that black bench chair, I look up to observe the environment that I’m in. It looks dead. The floors are white, tiled, and covered with a thin layer of dust. The walls are white and almost all of them are blank. The few that aren’t completely bare simply have clipboard’s, labels, and pens hanging on them. But none of the walls are bleach white. Maybe they were at one time. Maybe time itself is responsible for turning most of them into big, blank, beige pieces of plaster. Nevertheless, as I look around, I begin to get the sense that this is not an environment where vibrant colors or fancy flooring can co-exist.

Three women in business attire approach us. My professor smiles, greets them, and then introduces them to us. They’re lawyers.

“Alright, we’re here to meet the good guys,” I say to myself.

After they finish explaining the types of cases that they typically deal with, my classmates raise their hands to ask questions. After all, we do have a story due pretty soon and some of their topics relate heavily to the legal side of immigration.

Once the questioning ends, my classmates and I are asked to stand up so that we can split into smaller groups to observe a few case proceedings. As my group walks towards a courtroom, I notice a child. He’s giggling. He’s squirming in his seat as he plays with his older brother. The child looks happy but his older brother doesn’t. He’s smiling but he’s wearing that same fake expression of happiness that my older sister used to put on when something serious was happening in my presence. It’s in this moment that I begin to ask myself a very important question: Should we be here?

“I’d say that when you’re a journalist, you have to go into the field and experience things first hand. We can read about deportation all we want, but I feel like going to the court and actually seeing the person and seeing the tears changes things,” said one student.

There’s nothing wrong with a pursuit of experience. Any individual who wants to make a profession out of something must get hands on experience. But why is a different approach not taken when putting oneself in a situation such as this?  We will means simply be watching deportation cases like a child watches Saturday morning cartoons. A person can gain a better understanding of the immigrant experience through other avenues, such as conversations with immigrants, visits to their communities and/or homes, or even conversations with immigration lawyers. How is this a “first hand” experience?

I return to my former question. Should we be here? There must be some other purpose. Without it, the answer to my question cannot be “yes.” So, I sit in a courtroom and look at a man’s face as a judge deports him and sugarcoats it with the phrase, “We will move forward with the removal proceedings.” I ask: What is the purpose? What does this experience do for us?

“I don’t know,” said another student. “I thought it’d be a good opportunity to learn about immigrants.”

This only further points to a phenomenon that extends beyond this experience, beyond this class, and beyond journalism or any field of study. My class’s presence in this immigration court and our inability to acknowledge our presence in the court as nothing more than “experience” or an “opportunity to learn about immigrants” is representative of a very problematic aspect of the American consciousness. Our society has a tendency to act as voyeurs in the lives of non-Americans and anyone else that we perceive as not one of us. No matter if the circumstances are beautifully magnificent or outrageously tragic, we have a tendency to simply watch, offer some sort of expression of how whatever we observed made us feel, and then we carry on with whatever is going on in our lives. Beyond this courtroom experience, you see this issue in other situations such as the lack of American involvement Syria. Why?

“I think there has to be a certain number of people who care… If [the American government] think[s] the American citizens don’t care, they aren’t willing to do something,” said Nour Akhras, a Syrian woman.

She isn’t wrong. The influence of public sentiment towards an issue has influenced the way in which governments have operated for centuries. So why don’t we, as the American public, care?

“I think that Americans, if they’ve never experienced something like this, then it’s hard to put yourself in that position. It’s easy to just turn it off and not think about it,” said Akhras.

Before walking in to immigration court, I probably would’ve believed something similar to Akhras’ explanation. But this hypothesis is simply not supported by the evidence in front of me.

My class has just regrouped after watching the last case before we leave for the day. Smiles lay on all of their faces. A few of them are rejoicing. They stand in clusters and chatter like an audience after watching a movie or play. It makes sense to feel happiness right now. After watching a man get deported, we were able to see one man be granted the ability to stay in the United States of America. But what they just witnessed is not a fictional story written for their entertainment. What they just saw is someone’s life almost shatter.

When asked if he would take his experience beyond this assignment, a fellow classmate responds, “In terms of action probably not. I’ll probably write this story and just go through the rest of the class.”

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