I have always been extremely wary of U.S. immigration officials. I've been crossing the border into the country ever since I was a baby. I was targeted when my family first arrived in this country; my family flew in with green cards and the immigration agent still tried to separate me from my mother, claiming I was diseased and needed to be quarantined.
So, yeah. It didn’t start out well.
And for years after that, whenever I would cross by land or by plane, the fear was always there, lingering in the background.
Decades later, my own daughter, who was born in New York City, was put on a U.S. immigration watch list —people considered to be potential national security threats — after she turned 10 years old. They said her legal first and last name were so common that her identity was confused with criminals, other Latinas, with the same name. If everyone received the same treatment she did, every John Smith would be put into secondary as well. That’s obviously not the case. On more than one occasion I had to sit with my daughter in the secondary office of ICE at JFK. She would be trembling and I always tried to hold it together, keeping my own fear in check. It happened over and over until she applied for the global entry pass, a fast track ID to travel internationally that costs over $100, and well, is a privilege to obtain. It made the visits to the secondary office stop.
Throughout the Trump era, I became worried again. This time I thought the U.S. government would challenge my citizenship since I only became one in 1989. Trump dedicated an entire office to disputing the citizenship of people who weren't born here. I was sure I was next.
But that wasn’t what happened. In fact, it wasn’t U.S. immigration agents who targeted me.
In August of 2020, my team at Latino USA and I launched an investigation into the policy collaborations between the Mexican and U.S. governments (Trump and AMLO). The two were now building physical barriers and policy walls to keep migrants and refugees locked out or locked into their respective countries. This story was published as a two part series titled “The Moving Border” (Part One, The North and Part Two, The South), and recently won an Overseas Press Club award for international journalism. It’s a big deal.
So I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Mexican government was not happy.
What makes me say that? Well, a few things happened to me that I am now going to share in full transparency on the eve of my first return to Mexico. I’m making this story public so that the Mexican government and its immigration agents know that the whole world is watching. It might sound dramatic, but for me it is deeply personal.
I was scrolling through Twitter one night, updating my status when I noticed I had received a DM. When I opened it, I was a little surprised and horrified. The Mexican government actually DMed me on Twitter, and asked me for my “datos”, private information like my address and phone number. Can you believe that?! I knew that I had ruffled feathers in a way I hadn't before.
I left them on read, and didn’t think much more about it.
It was last November when I decided I needed to travel to Mexico, the only trip I took during the pandemic because, like all of you, I was desperate to see my mom. So my daughter Yurema and I flew into the Mexico City airport around 9pm local time. We were sleepy but excited to be back in mi tierra natal, just a few hours away from hugging my mom for the first time in almost a year. My brother had come to pick us up and was already waiting outside. When my daughter and I got to customs, we presented our U.S. passports. Yurema’s was promptly given hers back, but the Mexican immigration agent held onto mine. When I asked what the problem was, he stood up from his desk and asked me to follow him.
My legs buckled. “Excuse me?”
“Just follow me,” he tried to placate me. “There's a little confusion with your passport. Maybe they are mistaking you for someone with your same name. Just follow me.”
We were escorted to a hidden back room, the one you walk right past and never realize it existed. The entrance was in a dark hallway right before the bathrooms. The room had no fans or windows, There were about a dozen people sitting on worn benches. A large TV loudly played one of the Lord of the Rings movies in Spanish. There was a singular fold out table precariously stacked with black pens, and important looking forms. Three Mexican immigration agents, two women and a man, joked with each other as if no one else was in the room. Their masks sat below their chins and noses. The set up looked disheveled and old fashioned, not a computer in sight. Another agent took my passport and turned to me.
“Put your luggage against the wall and don't touch it.” he demanded. “Leave your phone there too and sit down.” Before I could say anything he left upstairs with my passport in hand.
For years I sat by my daughter’s side, soothing her as we sat in ICE secondary inspection in JFK. Now it was her turn to calm me down. Since I had my mask on no one could see I was in the middle of a panic attack, an experience I hadn’t gone through for over a decade. I was hyperventilating and crying, I couldn’t think straight. Yurema was holding my hand the entire time and whispering that everything was going to be alright.
I imagined being trapped in this room for the next 12 hours, or worse, being taken into custody and disappearing. What would happen to my daughter? My brother would worry why we were taking so long. What would he do? We had no way to tell anyone what was happening.
I tried to remember what meditation has taught me and focus on my breath. But I was struggling. A few minutes felt like an eternity. My body was starting to tremble. Finally the agent came downstairs and said my name. I practically ran to the rickety front desk. He held on tight to a few copies he had made of my passport.
“Sign here,” he said. Without hesitation I did.
I have no idea what I signed nor did I feel in the capacity to ask. I was still shaking. After I signed each document, he slowly handed me back my passport.
“¿Ya me puedo ir?” I asked desperately.
“Si.” he responded curtly.
We grabbed our bags and walked out. I started to cry in earnest. As soon as we got out of the airport area, I saw Mexican police everywhere. They were riding on the back of paddy wagons carrying machine guns, facing approaching cars. I was paranoid. What exactly had just happened to me? And why did I sign those papers?
I tweeted about my arrival saying something had happened because I needed to get it off of my chest and alert people around me that I had arrived in Mexico and was distressed. The calls from mis primos y primas started coming in: “Que te paso, Malulis?” When I told them that Mexican agents had taken my US passport from me they said they couldn't believe it.
Mexico is one of the top three most dangerous countries to be a journalist. There have been increasing attacks on journalists over the last decade. In 2019, both U.S. and Mexico authorities harassed journalists, lawyers, and activists waiting in Tijuana for the migrant caravans arriving from Central America.
I want everyone to know this happened because although I was ashamed at first, I have learned from my colegas to not be quiet. I am a journalist who deals with truth and transparency. I have approached my work with a purpose: to start conversations and shed light on things others might be afraid to talk about. I have been doing this work for thirty years, and I focus on doing my work with compassion, towards a mission of democracy, people owning their voices in society. And with that, my job is to report on and stay critical of the Mexican government, the way I do any other government. I am not a threat, unless you believe that hearing my reporting presents a problem. The threat isn’t me, it’s the truth. So to the Mexican government, its immmigration agents, and anyone who opposes the work of journalists: we are watching you. Stop harassing journalists like me who are simply doing our jobs.
P.S. When I arrive in Mexico, I will let you all know I am safe <3