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In America, the law is the law* (*if you’re poor, undocumented or nonwhite) | Will Bunch

Trump’s impeachment is seen as a test of whether U.S. is a just nation – but we’ve been flunking for years. Ask the undocumented, or fare jumpers, or ...

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are shown outside a San Fernando Valley, Calif. home in 2012.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are shown outside a San Fernando Valley, Calif. home in 2012.Read moreAl Seib / MCT

You raise your child to grow up to be a man like Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma. The Honduran native — married, raising a 10-year-old son in New Orleans — supported his family by working construction. It’s a tough job under the best of circumstances, but Ramirez Palma didn’t have the best of circumstances. After complaining repeatedly to his bosses at the site of a future Hard Rock Hotel about workplace safety, he watched three coworkers die and narrowly escaped serious injury himself when the unfinished building collapsed in October.

As an undocumented immigrant, Ramirez Palma had every reason to retreat into the shadows after cheating death. Instead, he wanted people to know everything. He talked to the media, joined a workplace-safety lawsuit, and offered to tell investigators what he knew about the deadly collapse — but the U.S. government wasn’t having it. In a simpler time, Ramirez Palma had staved off deportation so he could raise his son — a U.S. citizen — but the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him and sent him back to Honduras where he’d be inaccessible to investigators, let alone his family.

The details here are unique, even shocking — but the almost mindless cruelty of it all is something we see again and again in America as the 2010s mercifully come to a close. Not just in heavily Latin neighborhoods where families are now afraid to go to the ice cream shop — let alone testify in a court case or talk with police — but on big-city subway platforms where cops respond to fare jumpers with SWAT teams when they’re not busting women selling treats at the entrance upstairs. Did I mention school lunch debt or overdue library books?

This zero-tolerance policing sends a message not just to citizens and to migrants but around the world: America is a nation where the law is the law.

Except when it’s not.

Just days before Ramirez Palma was separated from his family and flown back to Honduras, the president of the United States acted in the kind of case that actually interests him, because it had become something of a cause célèbre on our de facto state media, the Fox News Channel. Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL, was considered so violent and immoral by his comrades that several of them broke the so-called code of silence to testify at a war crimes trial in which he was acquitted of the worst offenses in a bizarre, circus atmosphere.

Nonetheless, Gallagher was convicted of a lesser offense — posing for inappropriate photos with the corpse of an Afghan captive whose death was at the center of the case. That’s the kind of gross misconduct that gives strength to America’s enemies, a terrorist recruiting poster. But when commanders seeking to reform misconduct in Navy SEAL units pushed for a maneuver that would boot Gallagher off the elite team, our Fox News-obsessed intervened, even forcing the ouster of the Secretary of the Navy.

The Gallagher flap caused the fired Navy leader, Richard Spencer, to write that President Trump has no understanding of how “to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” Trump also pardoned two other convicted war criminals and has even talked of appearing at rallies with Gallagher and the other men. That would put the exclamation point on the president’s real message — that extremism and even violence in defense of what his side sees as American values cannot be punished, that these vile men were martyrs. It’s that brand of martyrdom that’s the essence of Trump’s own defense as he slides into impeachment.

For most of the fall, impeachment and the threat to Trump’s presidency — on the cusp of his reelection campaign, no less — has gripped the nation. His impeachment before Christmas by a Democratic-led House seems certain, setting up a Senate trial for January. But any drama won’t result from the facts of an open-and-shut case. Last month’s impeachment hearings showed overwhelming evidence that Trump and his allies solicited foreign election interference from Ukraine — a high crime — and used extortion tactics such as withholding military aid to seek what they wanted.

» READ MORE: About 50 Republicans are going to decide whether America becomes a dictatorship | Will Bunch

No, any suspense is around the question of whether any GOP senators will conclude that the president is bound by those laws, or — like Edward Gallagher — is a protected superman who can do whatever he wants, regardless of what’s on the books. The odds are overwhelming that, in the Senate, Trump will win … and justice will suffer a fatal blow.

Americans on both sides are increasingly angry about impeachment — but that shouldn’t mask the fact that most Americans have been angry since way before Trump descended from that escalator in 2015. And if the source of that rage could be boiled down to just one word, it would have to be “unfairness.” A chunk of that is economic unfairness, in a time of outrageous inequality, but much of it is a sense of injustice. A society that demands that certain people — migrants, black and brown folk — follow the exact letter of the law under a draconian system of punishment, while a protected class gets away with anything and everything.

If any story defined 2019 even more than the madness of King Donald, it was the bizarre saga of Trump’s mysterious wealthy grifter friend Jeffrey Epstein and his ability for years to both escape real justice and remain in high society’s good graces even as he sexually trafficked in underage girls. Even some of the nation’s top research scientists didn’t want to know about Epstein’s amorality as long as the money spigot kept flowing.

» READ MORE: Jeffrey Epstein will never be held accountable, but what about the many, many others? | Will Bunch

But then most of the stories in the news these days — whether it’s the nonstop malfeasance in the Trump White House or the ones that don’t get much airtime — carry a stench of injustice. Here’s one that didn’t get nearly enough attention: In Indiana, a blue-collar Amazon warehouse worker was crushed to death by a piece of heavy machinery. A subsequent investigation revealed considerable evidence that pending fines against Amazon were wiped off the books and the worker was unfairly blamed for his own death — all because high-ranking state officials didn’t want to hurt the state’s chances of bringing Amazon’s massive HQ2 to Indianapolis. Even the possibility of money wipes away all sin in 21st century America for the likes of Jeff Bezos or Jeff Epstein.

The lack of any accountability for the powerful allows government to devote almost all of its resources for punching down on the powerless. I was reminded of this in recent days as I read about the deportation of Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, the death-blaming on Amazon warehouse worker Phillip Lee Terry — and about all the resources and effort that ICE poured into creating a fake university for entrapping and deporting immigrants (many of them South Asian) on student visa violations that in many of the cases were created by ICE’s scheme. It’s hard to look at this craziness and not conclude we have a government centered on finding ways to (bleep) with people minding their own business, while zealously protecting their own.

This is why I fear so greatly for the United States after Trump is acquitted in January. Our secret that’s been hiding in plain sight for decades now — that America isn’t really ruled by the power of law, just the powerful — will be out there for the world to see, with no more pretending that we are some kind of exceptional nation. In post-impeachment, post-factual, post-rule-of-law America, we’ll discover whether that truth entraps us or sets us free.