This is a real story that was obtained through a personal interview with Luis. I’ve changed his name for the sake of his anonymity.
Luis is a US citizen by birth, he is a minor, he studies in the US and he is by all definitions an American. If this is the case then why was he handcuffed for four hours without any explanation? Forced to abandon his vehicle and treated like a criminal by US border patrol officers who threatened him for no reason. I write his story in this language because if I write it in English I’m informing but if I write it in Spanish I’m complaining. I want you to pay attention.
This past June Luis crossed the border from Tijuana to San Diego to go shopping for a gift for his father. It was a nice, sunny day and everything was going smoothly. Crossing the border from one country to another is something normal and part of our everyday activities as Mexican-Americans. Go ahead, roll your eyes if you want, but being a Mexican-American is perfectly legal and there’s nothing wrong with it. Any Tijuana resident with a passport will tell you that they’ve waited in line for a few hours (minutes if you have a Sentri card) to go to the movies, buy groceries, buy a dress for a special event or even to go to school every morning. Secondary inspection is part of the border-crossing experience as well. It’s totally random, unexpected and annoying but we do it because we understand that crossing an international border is not “whatever” and there’s such a thing as national security. You can be there for a very long time if it’s busy, if it’s lunchtime or if the officers just feel like ignoring your car. Luis was sent to secondary inspection that day and everything was fine, until it wasn’t.
The officer asked Luis for his license and registration (normal) he told him to exit his car (normal), Luis cooperated and did so immediately (you don’t want to upset the officer). The officer proceeded to handcuff Luis from his wrists and ankles and took him to a small room without any explanation (NOT NORMAL). In that room there were other people who were also handcuffed. A woman with a baby was there, another woman also handcuffed with her kids sitting next to her, young and old men, some looking confused and other just looking around. I would like to make a quick pause to put things into perspective.
- You are a 17 year old who was entering your country of birth with nothing to fear to buy a present for your dad.
- You are now sitting with your hands and ankles handcuffed while going through every bad thing you’ve ever done, no matter how small or insignificant, trying to figure out what you did that could’ve caused this.
- You cooperated and followed every instruction without resisting at all. Why would they treat you this way? Is it because you have tanned skin with dark eyes and brown hair? Is it because you speak English with an accent? Is it because the officer got pissed that you have dual-citizenship again?
- You asked to call your dad because you are a MINOR and this request was denied while they took your phone to later return and ask you to unlock it to take it away once again.
I don’t know about you but I would be so anxious that my heart would beat itself all the way through my throat and out of my body. Luis says he started talking to a man next to him in case he went to jail and needed friends. He says he was sweating for 4 hours straight. Was this about drugs? Where they looking for a bad guy? A stolen car maybe? They told him they were going to take his Sentri away for no reason. “Yours and your family’s so you can’t cross!” but why if this is his country? People told him to say that too, “You should’ve told them that you were an American citizen and a minor and that they had no reason for treating you like a criminal!” That’s easier said than done. The truth is that if he had come back with bruises for being beat up people would’ve said he was stupid for talking back. You’re supposed to be good to the officers. Even if they step all over your rights and mistreat you, right? The officers said “You’re free to go” and Luis was free to go but he’ll never be free from this experience. If those officers were allowed to treat him in such way, is he free at all?
I’m not saying this was an act of discrimination against my Mexican-American friend. I’m not generalizing about all officers and saying they abuse their power. I’m not saying that border security should cede. We’re all willing to wait a couple of extra hours at the airport. But taking your shoes off and throwing away your water bottle is one thing and being handcuffed for four hours is another. Nothing happened. Luis was released like the lady with the baby and the others. The man next to him who had stolen a car and then tried to cross a border with it wasn’t released, but they’d been after him for a while. My question is, do you think the children sitting next to their mother will ever forget the image of her handcuffed from her wrists and ankles? How do you think Luis feels after this happened to him in his own country where he was born? Do you think this is right? “Do something! Tell someone!” There is no one to tell. No one cares because he was simply one of the unlucky people that were there that day. “Good! Maybe this will teach you to stay away from OUR country” Well I’m sorry but it’s our country too. We’ll see how you feel when this happens to you when you come back from your next European vacation or your next Cancun spring break trip. Or maybe it won’t happen to you because you’re blonde and your name is John.
This is a story of awareness. I wrote it in this language because if I write it in English I’m informing but if I write it in Spanish I’m complaining and then I just fall into the trash mail of complaints from minorities than no one reads unless they’re trying to fix their image as humanitarians. I want you to pay attention. Pay close attention to what happens and how the combination of prepotency and power-abuse with a touch of discrimination can really hurt the principle of equality and the value of our rights as citizens. In front of the law and in reality Luis is as much as an American as any other citizen. If his rights are vulnerable so are yours. That is what this is about.