Hiding in Plain Sight: Inside the Life of an Undocumented Immigrant
Anna is eating a dinner of salad and lasagna as she recalls her stint in a Border Patrol detention center. She talks of acrid rot, the scent of bodies crammed like cattle, bodies empty of food, wet with fear. She describes the faces of the detainees. Dead eyes, swollen shut from crying. There was no room to sit, to lie down. They could only stand.
Anna was picked up with her husband for driving "under the speed limit."
"It is always something like that," she explains. "A cracked windshield. Changing lanes. Not using a signal."
At the detention center they were separated, searched. Anna was stripped of her belongings and handed a form to sign in English. It was a voluntary departure agreement.
"Most people don't know what the form says," she explains. "They sign it because they are told they have to, and what they are signing is their own doom."
Anna did not sign. Instead she asked to call her lawyer. This did not thrill the agents. Nor did it go over well when Anna informed all the other women in the center of their right to contact the Mexican consulate, that they did not have to sign any papers, and that they shouldn't feel coerced into anything.
"I asked the women if they'd been abused or mistreated. They told me their stories; most tried to give me the names of family members. I tried to remember as many as I could, but I had no paper or pen."
Agents were dismissive. So Anna calmly restated her rights. Asked again to call her lawyer. Explained that she was in process, that her mother, a citizen, had petitioned for her to stay in the U.S. and that her documents were working their way through the system. She did all this in English, something that further incited the agents.
"They didn't like that I could understand them," she says.
She was not allowed to call anyone. When she asked if she could, the agents laughed.
"I had to say, 'I'm stupid. I forgot my papers.' I had to say I had good moral character. I asked the young one, 'Why do you laugh at me?'"
Seven hours later, at 2 A.M., Anna was finally granted a call to the consulate. They rang her mother, who until then had no idea where Anna was. Nor did her children. "You are just living your life one minute, and the next, you are taken away and nobody knows where or how to find you," Anna says, her voice thick with fear. "And many of the people taken, they end up gone forever. Just like that."
She is speaking of the detainees who are processed, denied the opportunity to notify their families, then loaded into vans and dropped in Mexico, into towns they have never visited, with no money or contacts, their fates the worst kind of uncertain.
After her incarceration, Anna began to have panic attacks. She hyperventilated at the sight of a police car. She was too terrified to drive. On more than one occasion, she nearly fainted behind the wheel.
She found a therapist, who talked to her about deep breathing and post-traumatic stress disorder. Anna could see the logic, connect the dots. But that did not eradicate the fear. This was not a one-time trauma she'd survived and needed to recover from. This was a new way of life.
"When I came here I had dreams. I wanted to be a party planner," Anna says quietly. She wanted to fill fishbowls with candy and play music and string empty rooms with a thousand twinkling lights.
"I could see it all so clearly."