The Judge

Over the phone, the volunteer coordinator explains that the detention center is not a detention center. It’s a foster care agency. The children live in cottages. The cottages mushroom around administrative buildings and parked cars and palm trees.

Paperwork separates the children into the appropriate cottages: domestic or international. The domestic kids were born here in Florida. Their parents smacked them or ignored them or didn’t have patience and enough money to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The international kids were born in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, and their parents left them there, slipped them into the hands of aunties and abuelas like folded pesos or new pennies.

Domestic. International. This is how the foster care agency tracks children separated from their mothers. It creates an airport. Domestic. International. It documents arrivals, exits, wait times. It sprouts cottages.

This is not a complaint. It’s an observation.

It’s a Friday morning in July, and in the cottages, the children pour toes and legs and hips and elbows into khaki pants and black polo shirts that bear the insignia “His House International School.” The children march out of the cottages, their feet pointed toward the church some yards away.

The land here is a flat topography of sandy grass, palm trees, and Caribbean mahoganies. It rained all week, but that makes no difference. The sun shakes everything dry—the ground and the sneakers, the socks and the insides of wrists.

In the church, rows of metal chairs are lined up and facing the pulpit, which is simple and unadorned and an earth brown. The chairs have side panels so that every chair hooks to another, chained at the ankle. The house parents, women and men assigned to watch over each cottage, sit near the corners. They have kind faces. They know the kids’ names, their stories.

The children are mostly boys. They huddle in pairs, and groups of three and five. They make fun of each other. They lean against each other. They lend each other pencils. The bold ones call out, “Miss” and “Good morning,” the English words jumping out of them like the names of cities they are planning to visit.

The girls are fewer, about six or ten. They wear mood rings and friendship bracelets, and smile shyly.

The children number around forty or fifty, sometimes more, sometimes less. They stay here two weeks, five weeks, five months. Lately it has been twenty-one days, because, the rumor goes, someone somewhere has decided the children need to be moved through faster.

The children are twelve years old, fourteen, sixteen. The last number anyone wants here is eighteen. Crossing that threshold, starting at the chime of midnight, a child here can be detained, deported.

On papers labeled “Fact Sheets” issued by the Department of Human Services, a child at a place like His House is not a child; he is an unaccompanied “alien” child. The two words—child and company—linked on the page, because we have some decency to know a child must have a mother, or at least a stand-in. The word “alien” shoved between child and company because ours is a provisional decency.

Today, like every Friday, the children attend a one-hour program sponsored by the Immigrant Child Affirmative Network. Graduate students from the School of Education at the University of Miami run the program, and EnFAMILIA, a migrant workers organization in Homestead, sends a carpool each week of organizers and artists and college students to help. About ten volunteers gather at the back of the church at His House and review the lesson plan, the games we will play with the children, the purpose of the juegos.

Diuver Arias stands next to me. He came with the Homestead group. He nods a lot and prefers to be called D. A tall, brown man from Cuba, D. buys and sells cars for a living, and has a studio at ArtSouth in Homestead, where he has sculpted a giant bronze-coated hammer in the shape of a man’s foot. This is D.’s practice: Take objects from everyday life—a hammer, a nail, a sandal—and turn them into art. The hammer is not a hammer. It’s a method of power. Its shape can be bent, manipulated, made flexible. He tells me later, “The hammer has the capacity to hit and also to take out the nail. It can be used for good and for bad.”

Today, he walks up to a group of boys. The program is about planning for the future, and D. says, Let’s go outside.

His House spans a long block in Miami Gardens, Florida, about forty minutes northwest of the tourist beaches. The state’s Department of Families and Children Services has licensed the faith-based organization, but huge swaths of the property are vacant, dotted only with a few administrative buildings and the church, the trees and the children’s cottages. A low wall circles the property, and across the wide two-way street where SUVs breeze by and a bus stops periodically, men wash cars at the strip mall and a jewelry store boasts of precious metals.

Under the shade of a mahogany, D. explains the game. He’s wearing white shorts that reach his knees, a baby blue polo shirt, and baseball cap, and he stands opposite one of the boys. He places his hands behind his back; the boy does the same. They each decide quietly how many fingers they will reveal to one another. On the count of three, they pull their hands from behind their backs, only a select number of brown fingers pointing to the sky, which is hot and bright.

A memory gap here: Was it five dedos in total? Three? Six? Has a number ever been permitted to be only a number?

The first one to add the number of fingers his opponent is showing plus his own wins the round. D. wins. He runs a practice drill. A lanky boy named José wins three times in a row. D. declares him the Capitán.

“Our teams need names,” D. announces. He’s smiling. He’s jubilant. He is happy to be here with the boys. It’s like making art. He’s opening windows. That’s how he will describe it later: “I hope to open windows. Most people are only going to show you the problem. I hope to show you the window.”

D.’s joy is such now that it is almost possible to forget the cottages and windows that don’t open and why the children are here and how D. is thirty-six but understands the boys. He’s an immigrant. He doesn’t have family in Miami, and for almost two years, he walked around the city belonging only to himself, the residency papers delayed in someone’s office.

Still, his joy is such now that it’s almost possible to believe we are only playing a game.

“Qué nombres les ponemos?” D. asks the boys, then clarifies: “Nombres de equipos de fútbol.

Real Madrid.”

“Chelsea,” one of the boys calls out.

Real Madrid v. Chelsea.

The boys line up to face each other, but they are an odd number. One boy is left behind, lingers on the edge of the line, the toes of his sneakers edging into the sandy grass. D. calls out, “You’re going to decide who wins.” The left-out boy nods. He’s the Judge, El Juez. He has soft eyes and a ruddy complexion and wide shoulders. He’s fourteen or sixteen.

The game begins. On the count of three, D. whistles, and the boys’ hands swing from behind their backs, and numbers crowd the air: “Six!” “Thirteen!” “Ten!” The boys laugh, swing their heads from D. to the Judge. The Judge calls the round for Chelsea.

Round two and three. Chelsea wins again. A woman from the foster care agency calls out to us. She needs the Judge. The kids watch him leave but don’t stare. They are excited now. They like winning. They like the possibility of winning.

When the Judge returns a few minutes later, his eyes are watery. His lower lip trembles. He doesn’t share what’s happened, but the children have, on other occasions, disclosed the most common jabs of pain: You’re leaving on Monday, have your things ready. Your sister will be here. No, not Monday. Thursday. Next week. Soon. Time is not time. It is an empty plate passed back and forth.

D. whistles. Another round. The Judge eats his tears and watches the flying hands and cocks his head toward the numbers tossed under the shade of the mahogany tree. “Chelsea,” he decides. Another round, and this time, the Judge leans in further. He wants to be the first to hear the number. Again, it’s for Chelsea.

D., however, does not believe in losers, in limitations, although he is familiar with them. He doesn’t, for example, have enough money these days to pay the rent and to also make the art he wants, but he can insist on faith because he was an artist in Cuba. As a child, he drew inside closets and underneath tables and on the walls. The lack of supplies would not stop him. The house was a canvas. It was possible to win.

“We’re going to switch this up,” he tells the boys, and he trades players from one team to the other, so that in the next round, Real Madrid wins.

The game is over. D. asks the boys, “What can you take from this game and apply to real life?”

The Capitán says, “Mathematics. It’s addition.” Another boy says, “In real life, you try to win.” D. nods to all of this. “I like that,” he says. Then he tells them: “In real life, we’re on a team. You have friends, people who support you, and you work with people who oppose you.”

He explains that in the game the boys had to plan ahead of time. They had to know how many fingers they were going to raise so they could add the total number of dedos before their opponents. He starts preaching, and the boys lean into him, because he is like them, brown and male and unaccompanied, and they know it.

He tells them they might show up at a job and not like someone there or someone might pick a fight with them. “Are you going to quit your job?” he asks and looks around the circle. He continues: “No. You’re going to stay focused on your plans. There are goals and there are hopes. Your goals depend on you. Hopes depend on other people.”

D. pauses. “Let’s go around the group,” he says. “What plans do you have?”

The answers arrange themselves. The immigrant call and response. “Learn English.” “Get work.” “Help our families.” But not the Judge.

“I want to build something back in my country,” he says. “A house or a business.” He frowns a little. He’s looking at D. or past him to the trunk of the mahogany, which is not a tree now. It is the future, and the Judge can lean toward it and the sloping rooftop of the shop he will build back in his country, the wide door frame, himself at the cash register, the whistle when the register pops open, the children’s triumphant faces. He can see them, the children. They are lining up in front of his store to buy popsicles, caramelos, chewing gum, their hands full of coins.