A Future We Can Survive
On Patrick Lyoya, immigrant regret, and what a police stop taught me about the impossibility of justice.
IT WAS THE morning of my high school’s Sadie Hawkins dance.
Leaning over the car’s center console, all I could make out through my fear was the cop’s hunter green uniform.
I was riding in the passenger’s seat. Like any Saturday, my dad and I were driving my little brother to his basketball practice. The streets were empty but for us and the cop car, and my dad switched lanes to turn left onto the main road. The light turned green. The cop’s lights came on.
I came to learn that the reason the officer pulled us over was what he saw on his computer screen. When the cop keyed in my father’s plate number, he would have noticed that his license had expired—which meant that he was breaking the law, which made him deserving of arrest. He did not know we had been victims of immigration fraud. He did not know we were undocumented. He did not know my father would not have been allowed to get a license even if he wanted to.
I spoke to the cop, tried to translate my father’s explanation that we were still waiting on our immigration papers, but something told me that excuse would not satisfy the officer.
“I should arrest him,” he told me. “But since Christmas is around the corner, I’ll let him go this time.” Is this where I tell my father that the word “mercy,” in French, used to mean pity?
It seemed to me that there could have been no justice in the officer’s kindness when he possessed all the choice, and my father possessed none.
Immigrants, we’re told, are supposed to be thankful for the kindnesses of citizens. It seemed to me that there could have been no justice in the officer’s kindness when he possessed all the choice, and my father possessed none. In other words, my father could not have gotten a license — or indeed, “become legal,” as some would say — to correct his infraction. I had come from Venezuela, a country where the law routinely gets made on the side of the road by a functionary of the government, to a country where freedom was allegedly abundant. Here we were held hostage by the law itself.
Patrick Lyoya must have also thought that he was going on just any other drive when, on April 4 this year, a police officer pulled him over in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lyoya had come to the Midwest fleeing instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, only to be met with violence from the state here in the United States. Three minutes after the cop pulled him over, Lyoya was dead.
Lyoya’s case has become widely known in the media and around the country in part because Black activists, journalists, and police abolitionists have brought greater awareness to just how pervasively the police use deadly violence against people who are criminalized simply for the color of their skin. By many accounts, the modern form of that movement began in February 26, 2012, 30 minutes north and 10 months before my family’s encounter with the police, when George Zimmerman authorized himself to shoot Trayvon Martin. He was never found guilty.
We know that Black Americans die at the hands of police at double the rate of their white counterparts. Black immigrants also suffer the cruelties of the immigration system at a disproportionately high rates: According to a report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, “while Black immigrants make up only 7.2% of the noncitizen population in the U.S., they make up 20.3% of immigrants facing deportation […] on criminal grounds.” Programs like 287(g) also practically guarantee that state and local police are deputies of immigration enforcement, performing a wide array of functions from checking DHS databases to transferring people into ICE custody. A broken taillight these days can lead to deportation.
Statistics can never reflect the mix of confusion, shame, and yes, loss that immigrants often feel when interacting with the authorities. “What did I do wrong?” Lyoya asked Christopher Schurr, the officer who had pulled him over that rainy day. In videos of the shooting, he is breathing jaggedly even as he tells the officer he can speak English.
“The plate doesn’t belong on this car,” he replied.
Lyoya asks to retrieve his license from the car, but then closes the door. He turns away from Schurr, who grabs him. Lyoya breaks free and starts to run up the street, only to be tackled and kicked by Schurr, who then presses Lyoya’s face against the turf of the front yard belonging to one of the houses. The body camera’s video fails us here: Because Schurr is on top of Lyoya, you can’t see what’s happening except for blurs of the olive sweater Lyoya is wearing.
Schurr turns off the body camera.
The video taken by Lyoya’s passenger shows the rest of the story. Lyoya and Schurr struggle for a while longer on the grass, until Schurr straddles Lyoya while he’s face down, pulls out his gun, and shoots Lyoya on the back of the head. The autopsy revealed that Schurr pressed the barrel against Lyoya’s head before pulling the trigger.
“I’m surprised and astonished to see that it was here my son was killed with a bullet,” said Dorcas Lyoya, Patrick’s mother, who came to the United States in 2014.
He was 26, one year older than me.
Maybe this is the immigrant’s folly: To believe that arriving in a strange land, learning a strange language, and assimilating to a strange culture could shield us from violence. But imagining a better future—a survivable future—is itself the radical act that compels immigration.
Maybe this is the immigrant’s folly: To believe that arriving in a strange land, learning a strange language, and assimilating to a strange culture could shield us from violence.
I recently came across a similar story, just as heart-rending. In The New York Times, Corina Knoll writes about a GuiYing Ma and her husband, Zhanxin Gao, two Chinese immigrants who journeyed 6,500 miles to New York in search of a better life. “Their plans were bold, with no room for devastation,” it begins. The story describes an equal feeling of astonishment when Gao, on November 26, 2021, discovered that Ma was in a coma after a man had bashed her head in with a rock in the Corona neighborhood in New York City. For some days before her death, Ma had been improving. As a prayer for her full recovery, Gao would tell her, “When I see you, I feel happy. Are you happy when you see me?”
Who did they have but each other?
There’s one other line from the article that struck me to my core. The piece says that after his wife’s death, Gao came to harbor “deep regret about coming here.” This is a sentence about the immigrant experience you don’t hear often. No matter what happens to us here, we are often expected to show gratitude for the ability to immigrate. It is, perhaps, a pre-emptive retort to the nativist refrain, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
Many immigrants do want that. I know elders who long for the day they get to return home, to be in an environment where they are not considered aliens, a place they can really be from. I can understand why Gao regrets his decision as much as I could understand the Lyoyas’ demand for justice here.
I’m neither Black nor Asian. But these are my people.
Our power, in life as much as in death, fills up planes.
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