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An ICE officer-in-training stopped me in Denver on my way back from Mexico City this month.
It was a familiar and unwanted routine: Because of my travel history and my frequent trips to Mexico to visit my family, I always — always — get stopped and escorted to a different room for extra security. This time the officer was polite as he asked me questions and rifled through my luggage.
“Make sure the deodorant is actually deodorant,” his supervising officer told him as I sat wondering how long it would take this time.
He continued to ask me all the questions you’d expect — but then he asked, “Why don’t your parents live with you in the United States?”
I looked at him with disbelief as I stuttered, “My dad got deported when I was 7 years old.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
I’m sorry, too, that an officer just like you took my dad, I thought to myself.
ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — says that its agents are forbidden from racial and ethnic profiling and are refreshed on training every six months. But that doesn’t seem to hold any water when I constantly have to explain why I travel so often and watch time and time again as ICE agents go through every single item in my bag and private life — from opening tampons to unwrapping the candy I bring back for my friends.
I thought I’d never have to see ICE again after they deported my dad, and yet I’ve since had more encounters with ICE than I can count. They all seem to follow the same line of questioning.
“Who are you visiting?”
“Why do you travel so often?”
“What’s the reason for your trip?”
Two years ago, I felt so violated after a Cuban officer in Florida googled my name and found my website. “So you wanna be a journalist?” he said with a mocking tone.
Last year as I was on my way back to North Carolina, I had a layover in San Antonio, where I got stopped again. It took so long for them to go through every single item in my luggage that I missed my connecting flight and had to stay in a hotel to wait for the next one available. I was so upset I went on an Instagram rant about how unfair it was. Not only did I miss class but I got no sleep that night thinking about how unjust the situation was.
This month I was coming back after surprising my dad for his 65th birthday. As I turned the street corner back in our homeland Valle de Vazquez, his head was already peeking out the door. As I ran to his arms, tears rolled down both our faces. It was the longest hug we’ve ever shared, and it felt like it made up for the past seven birthdays I had missed.
It was the first time I spent his birthday with him since I left at age 15. Since school’s online, I was able to go and celebrate it with him. The four-day trip was so meaningful that I almost forgot about the hard time ICE would give me when I stepped foot on American soil.
It doesn’t matter whether you were born in America. Latinx people will always be foreigners in a foreign land. Stereotypes will always haunt us. To ICE I will always be a suspicious Latina who travels too much because being a self-supporting UNC student and journalist who just wants to see her family can’t be it.
Being stopped and profiled by ICE always brings me so much trauma even as an American citizen. It makes me relive the day my dad was taken from me over and over again. It reminds me that no matter what my passport says, to ICE I am just another Latina who is red-flagged because I travel to Mexico way too often. And it doesn’t matter how many times I tell them that I travel a lot because my family is in Mexico — they don’t care.
But no matter what they see or think, I am more than that. I am a Latina who left everything she knew in Mexico to get an education. I am a Latina who self-supported herself through college — sometimes even while working up to three jobs. I am a Latina who must straddle both sides of the borders to have both a family and opportunities for a better future.
Patsy Montesinos, a senior at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is a part of the News + Record’s “La Voz” team, which is reporting on Chatham’s Hispanic/Latinx community and funded by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project.
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