Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.
I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.
Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.
Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.
While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.
In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.
The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.
We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.
The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else? What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.
Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).
Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.
“No re-direct, your Honor.”
The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.
The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.
The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:
I find the Respondent to be credible.
I find that he has suffered past persecution
And has a well-founded fear of future persecution
Based on his political opinion.
A grant of asylum is merited.
Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.
We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.
Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?
“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.
So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.
But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.
Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.
It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.
Oh hold up
They found the kid
He had a gun
He was tackled
I have a Spanish quiz
But I think I’ll leave just in case.
Any day can go sideways.
My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:
They were locked down.
They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.
They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.
Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.
The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.
So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?
The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?
My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.
I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.
My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?
What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?
Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novel, Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow more of her writing on Medium.