On the morning of August 8, 2011, my boyfriend Eric and I made a wrong turn. Unfortunately, for me, this would be a point of no return.
While on our way to South Padre Island, in the southeastern tip of Texas, after making that wrong turn, we were stopped by immigration officers who questioned Eric and made me stay still in the car with my hands on the dashboard. They checked the trunk and under the car. Then things got weird.
Three more border patrol trucks came by. Another officer took one look at me and asked for identification. I reached for my wallet and pulled out my California ID. He walked away with it, and I overheard them say there was nothing wrong. He came back and told me to stop lying and admit that I had just crossed the border. I protested that I hadn’t.
He then walked away and entered my name on a database. He came back and again told me to stop lying. I repeated my denial, and then he ordered me to step out of the vehicle. He said that if I did not tell the truth, he would press charges against me. He turned to the other officer and told him to take me in. I faced the car, put my hands behind me, and felt the cold handcuffs close around my wrists. Their excuse? There were many people with my name who were criminals and had warrants out.
“What Was There to Fear?”
What was there for me to fear? I had a job permit, a Social Security number, a state issued ID and a clear record. As they put me in their truck, forcing me to sit back with the handcuffs cutting into my wrists, I smiled one last time at Eric, knowing it would all be over soon.
I was transported to an immigration processing office in McAllen, stripped of my belongings, fingerprinted and photographed. They pulled about every single criminal record they could, from a combination of my name and birth date to my fingerprints and nothing showed. I saw them print blank page after blank page. All they said to one another was, "Still nothing."
The arresting officers’ supervisor ordered them to pull up my immigration case files. I could tell this was an unusual proceeding because the officers had no idea how to do it. After waiting over an hour sitting in a concrete bench, I saw that they found something.
According to the case file, in 2003 I was issued a departure order. They told me it would have come in the mail, but I had no inkling of such letter ever reaching me. Perhaps it got lost in transit. It did not matter.
I was told I would have to leave the country voluntarily or go to jail and wait until I could get a hearing; but it would take months before I could be processed.
I signed my departure papers and waited for the officers to finish their paper work. They showed me into Cell 9, a 10x20-foot concrete box with a metal toilet in the back.
In the cell sat Jesus and Miguel. They both had been detained that day, Jesus during his second attempt to cross, and Miguel during his third. Both had families waiting for them in Dallas, families who had not talked to them in weeks. But they kept their faith; they knew they would be reunited again.
I sat on the cold concrete, staring at the wall, trying to take it all in: tales of hope, love, and a never-ending faith. The wall had been carved by people professing their love for others, their names and the dates they had been there.
Messages on the wall noted passages of the Bible in Spanish, English and Chinese. Then I saw the one that stirred me, a single brick that read: Hoy, yo toqué la puerta. (Today, I knocked at the door.) I stared at that wall, wondering at the fate of all those people. Did Mariano Lopez eventually cross the border successfully and see his three children in Arlington, Virginia? Was Ramon with his daughters, Mariela, Lucrecia and Maggie?
Soon, we were taken to a bus. Jesus sat next to me and assured me I would be all right. He then told me he also had been born in Veracruz. He spoke of how the economy had taken a downturn and everything seemed to be collapsing except for a few people, who were wealthy before and now were getting wealthier. It made him sick, but that's the way economics works, even in the US of A
We talked about his two children, ages two and five, both born in Dallas. I thought of the injustice of leaving two kids fatherless with only their mother’s minimum wage income to support them.
We arrived at the East Hidalgo Detention Facility. Upon entering the building were given thin foam mattresses to sleep on and a cup of apple juice. I tasted the juice, and immediately a medical tang invaded my mouth. It had been laced with something. I would later learn from a friend who works in correction facilities that it was a sedative. I hid it beneath my foam mattress.
At 6 a.m. the guard came to my door again, told me to get ready; the time to go was soon to come. We walked out back where we had arrived, passing through the common green areas where I felt the hopelessness of everyone there. We got our clothes back, if ever slightly cleaner than before, and shrunk. We stepped into the lobby area and waited to enter another room where a gentleman from the Mexican Consulate was waiting to ask us some questions.
He asked for my name, birth date and place of birth--and how many times I had tried to cross the border. I responded, “None.” He seemed confused, as if he did not know what to write down.
He asked me what my address was. That's when I cracked. “8600 FM 620 N, Austin, Texas,” I said, tears running down my cheeks. He shook his head and wanted to know what my address was in Mexico. I lost it.
Between sobs I restated my address in the US I could picture BB, my cat, coming over and jumping on my lap, purring loudly as I caressed her ears, she encompassing all of what my life had been. My high school years in Los Angeles. My life at Grinnell College as a Posse Foundation Scholar. The life I had formed with Eric. The life I had designed after graduating from Grinnell College and deciding to stay in Iowa. Then my new life in Texas. My life as an artist.
I returned to the room with the others and waited for what seemed forever. The others discussed whether or not they would try to cross again. Jesus asked me if I would cross the border illegally, and I said no. I would come back to my loved ones the way I should. I would apply for reentry and hope for the best. “I have trust in the legal system,” I said, “I believe it punishes, but it can also reward.”
A couple hours later, we were rounded up outside the room, facing the wall. On went the cuffs around my feet. My wrists were bound and held close to my belly by yet another heavier chain that went around my waist.
I could hardly walk. We were pushed back into the small room. Overcrowded, hot, with no windows or airflow. We waited. Two hours we stayed like that until finally a bus came. After an hour or so, we arrived at an airport. There we saw a large passenger plane. 29 windows, five seats per row. You do the math.
It unloaded many passengers either being released or being taken to the facility from which we came. When they were all off the plane, their buses gone, we started, one by one, in the order we had arrived, making our way up to the plane.
I would set foot for the first time in 11 years in the land where I was born but which no longer felt my own.