Monday, January 27, 2014

The Law and Grace, or How a Dollar Store Clerk one-ups Immigration Canada

Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part... making that call. I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I'm gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that's the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street. Jim Kurring, Magnolia (1999)

Well, my Christmas vacation from writing took a little longer than I originally planned.  Let’s return with a story.

A few nights back I was at our church for an evening event.  An ad hoc dinner table formed as a few of us wandered in with our take-out prior to the event, including a two of our pastors.  As we tucked into our IGA sweet and sour pork and McDonalds fries, Pastor Aaron (all names changed) told us a recent story from our shelter. 

Our church runs an overnight shelter once a week where people can come and have a hot meal and warm place to sleep.  Jason, a tall, stout man with a friendly laugh, has been coming for nearly 15 years.   Jason has a significant other – Erica.  Erica is a little frail and a lot clingy – for all those 15 years she’s been inseparable from Jason.  She relies on him to take care of her. 

Jason’s laugh is the outward expression of his heart – he loves and cares for his Erica, and has tended to her, cared for her, the whole time they’ve been around.  The two were a unit – it was impossible to consider one without the other. 

Until a few weeks ago.  Murray came into the shelter with no Erica.  Aaron went right to him to ask about her.  My heart stopped here – when I hear these stories of the marginalized, the homeless, the mentally ill my mind goes straight to the worst.  I knew Aaron was going to tell us how Erica had died, leaving Jason to himself. 

But Erica did not die.  After living here for 15 years with Jason, immigration officers took her into custody and deported her to the United States.  Now she is wandering around some strange city without her lover, her caretaker.  No one to help her, no one to guide her, no one to support her.  Alone. 

This is just bullshit.  Absolute fucking bullshit.  I’m a calm person by nature – it takes a lot to get me angry. But this makes me so freaking livid I’m shaking just writing this days later.

Perhaps ironically, when it comes to immigration, law and order, etc., I’m pretty conservative.  Follow the rules or suffer the consequences.  We have immigration and refugee processes.  They’re ugly, they’re slow, but they generally work. Follow them and welcome to Canada.  Don’t, and we’ll send you back.  A borderless world?  I’m sure it’s a nice feature of your hippie utopia, but I want some controls on who comes into our country.    

So in theory, I should be all for this.  An illegal immigrant living off the generosity of our community, and quite likely off the government? This is the exact thing people are talking about when complaining about illegal immigrants.  A drain on our resources, criminals, yadda yadda yadda, kick the bums out.  And maybe under different circumstances I would be less offended by this.  No doubt immigration kicks other people out of the country I am glad to have gone. 

Why does Erica’s story bother me?  Part of it is the timeframe.  Seriously, 15 years later?  At some point in time have we not de facto accepted Erica as a part of our country?  I realize there are moral hazards in setting time limits on immigration enforcement, but perhaps that would provide an incentive for our system to deal with cases in a timelier manner. 

But time is just a part of it.  As a terrible Christian, the question that really bothers me here is where is the grace?  Not just in Erica’s case, but where does grace fit into our justice system as a whole?
The official sources are not much help.  I read the BC Policing Plan.  I searched for grace, forgive, and a dozen other synonyms.  How many did I find? 


Looking at the courts, I found information aplenty on how the courts work, but almost none on what their goal is, or where grace, forgiveness and similar values fit in.  We can see bits of it poking through – things like absolute (and to an extent conditional) discharges, amnesties, and certain prison programs show we want to move on and bring people who broke the law back into the family of Canada.  Officers can of course show discretion as the deal with their cases. 

The justice system is supposed to consider things like
  • Seriousness of the crime
  • Deterring the accused and others from committing the crime
  • Rehabilitation of the accused

when determining how to deal with a convict.  I believe we need to be going beyond that.  I believe we need to start considering how we give more to the people who have broken our rules, who have hurt our society.  We as a country and as individuals need to show the people bearing the burden of the justice system that we love them and value them as citizens and members of our communities.  We need to welcome them in, be generous with them.  We need to forgive them. 

What specifically can we do to show grace?  Lots of small things. 

For people in or coming out of prison -
  • We can have someone tell them we as a country forgive them and welcome them back
  • We can give them a bus or train ticket to anywhere in the country they want to go
  • We can give them a good set of clothes
  • We can give them better facilities (cue the cries of “prison resorts” now)

For people interacting with law officers –
  • We can take suspected criminals into services rather than jails
  • We can help them right their wrongs immediately instead of through the courts
  • We can just let it go

Would the people falling into the justice system take any of this seriously?  Some would, some wouldn’t.  Are we opening ourselves up to be taken advantage of?  Absolutely.  But somewhere in the middle of absolute grace in all cases and hard-core justice in all cases is a tension we need to find.   I would love to hear from front-line officials (law officers, judicial members, etc.) perspectives’ on how grace fits into their work. 

I went into a dollar store several months back.  The typical seasonal displays were up.  The typical seasonal line-ups were long.  The typical seasonal music was being accompanied by a hysterical wailing coming from the back. 

I couldn’t see what was causing the noise.  No one appeared to be freaking out, so I threaded my way through the aisles to get what I needed.  Eventually I ended up at the back and came upon the source of the wail. 

A gaunt faced woman was screaming, crying, yelling about how she can’t go to jail.  A store clerk was calmly talking to her.  “I’m not going to call the police.  I’m just going to look through your bags.  I’ll give you back anything that’s yours.” 

More screaming. 

The clerk went into two plastic shopping bags with ratty blankets on top.  Predictably, underneath was dozens of dollar store goods.  The clerk put the blankets down and told the lady those were hers, and then went through every item in the bags, one by one, keeping the store goods, but giving back the few items that did belong to the lady.

The whole time the clerk was very calm, very patient, very respectful in dealing with the lady – firm, but gentle.  Over time the lady calmed down significantly.  The clerk finished with the bags, told the lady to take her things and leave, and reiterated she would not call the police.  The lady started to cry again as she took her bags and left. 

Grace.  Did she deserve it?  No – that’s the point.  

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