For the past several weeks, I have been interviewing individuals affected by our nation's immigration laws for a recent series in the Post-Star.
Many of the individuals I spoke with expressed a sincere desire to be in this country because they love our country and the opportunities it presents. Many detailed arrests and being detained in federal detention centers because they stayed in the U.S. after their visa expired.
I realize letting a visa expire is illegal, but so it running a red light, not paying a parking ticket, or letting a vehicle registration expire. I remember a young man in Vermont who was in court for his 19th offense of driving with a suspended driver's license. He was not jailed.
For foreign nationals who have lived in this country for decades, paid into Social Security and paid taxes that benefit all of us, is imprisonment really the answer?
As a former cops and justice reporter in Vermont and Pennsylvania, I have covered horrific crimes and murders over the years, like the grandmother who was murdered in Essex County after two men carjacked her in the Rutland Price Chopper parking lot on her way to work. I investigated the national hate movement and spent a great deal of time interviewing national leaders of the Aryan Nations and the KKK. Editors have sent me to crime scenes where husbands had allegedly murdered their wives, one while the children were home. I witnessed the place where Vermont State Police found the body of a young woman thrown over a railing and down a ravine in the Green Mountain National Forest.
So when I think about a mother or father trying to feed their children and make a better life for their family by working hard at a skilled job, I can't really equate the crimes. And I can't understand the increased level of law enforcement resources dedicated to finding, arresting and imprisoning them. This year, the president ordered 10,000 more ICE agents added to a pool of over 45,000.
Does the effort and the punishment equal the crime, I wonder?
The more I thought about this, the more I was struck by parallel themes in classic literature: Characters facing harsh imprisonment for non-violent and what I consider smaller (misdemeanor) crimes.
In Victor Hugo's, long censored — from 1864 to 1959 — story of Jean Valjean, readers are faced with the manifestation of legal injustice. Valjean was villainized and hunted for years by Inspector Javert. His original crime? Stealing a loaf of bread because he and his young sister were hungry.
Hugo, who lived in exile for nearly two decades was trying to bring to light such inequities of justice in "Les Miserables."
“As long as there are ignorance and poverty on Earth,” wrote Hugo in the book's preface, “books such as this one may not be useless.”
As I was writing this blog, I was thinking about crimes related to basic survival,feeding families and poverty. And I recalled signs i have seen in cities, pointing out that it was illegal to feed the homeless. Food-sharing laws make it illegal to share food with a homeless person. There are now more than 70 U.S. cities with proposed or finalized laws.
In 2013, a 90-year-old WW II veteran and chef, Arnold Abbot, was cooking elaborate meals and serving them to the homeless in a Fort Lauderdale park. He was arrested and faced 60 days in jail for feeding the homeless. In 1991, Arnold started the Love Thy Neighbor Fund in honor of his wife because before she passed away they fed the homeless together. Today, now 93 and labeled a scofflaw, Arnold is still fighting city government and vows to keep feeding the homeless despite continued legal action against him.
Does Arnold deserve to be jailed even though he is breaking the no feeding the homeless law?
I am left wondering, is there no room for humanity and reason in our laws and their punishments?