"Never get married or start a journey on Tuesday the 13th, goes a popular Latin American saying. Ignoring this superstition, I returned to the United States after celebrating the 2004 New Year’s festivities in my beloved native land of El Salvador. I was a little anxious about the recently implemented US-VISIT system, part of the new Homeland Security entry protocols, because my flight was through Miami and I feared that the new system would cause delays and make me miss my connecting flight to Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, the line at immigration advanced fluidly, which calmed me down; I still had an hour and a half to board my next flight. When I arrived at the counter, the official took the required fingerprints and photo, and then told me to go stand by the U.S. flag for another official to tell me where to go. I found this strange, because all my documents were in order. Another official escorted me to a room that, to my surprise, was filled with 150 to 200 people.
Upon analyzing the group, I realized that our common denominator was that we were almost all people of color. Half the people were black and half were brown, of either Indian or Latin American descent. There was a small group of whites, but talking to them I realized they were South Americans. Immediately, I identified some of my fellow citizens, with their famous boxes of Pollo Campero, El Salvador’s favorite brand of fried chicken.
Chaos reigned in this room, which was filled with small children, couples with babies, elderly people and at least one pregnant woman. I asked an official why we were there, and he responded that they needed to check to see whether we had criminal records. On top of this disgrace, he explained that the computer system was not working and we would have to wait while they fixed it. Don’t you have a backup system? I asked indignantly. Do we look like we do? responded the official sarcastically. How could such an advanced country not have a backup system? Iwondered.
I resigned myself to the fact that I had already missed my flight and was going to have to sleep in the airport. There were no empty seats, so I sat on the floor and dedicated myself to observing the chaotic situation. Soon I realized that we were detained. Under no circumstance could we leave this room, nor were we allowed to make telephone calls to let our families know where we were. They would not even let us use cellphones. At least in jail, the detained have the right to call their lawyer, I thought to myself. The room seemed to be a high security area. Even the employees had to swipe their ID cards through a barcode reader to open the door to leave.
As the hours passed and the children began crying, people started crowding around the officials, demanding an explanation. One mother put her baby on the counter because the baby had soiled his diaper and there was no place to change him. We were all hungry because it was 8:30 at night. The officials became desperate as well, and brought in some milk and cookies for the children and some apples for the adults, but there were not enough to go around. One of the unfortunate travelers gave me two scrambled egg and hard cheese sandwiches that his mother had made him for the trip. My mom foresaw this situation, he said. Something bad always happens on Tuesday the 13th.
I realized that many of the people detained had green cards. This surprised me, since by my logic travelers with permanent residency would be scrutinized less than those traveling with just a visa. One Salvadoran, who had been a permanent resident for seven years, commented indignantly: They do this to us just because we are Latinos. I am going to get my citizenship and see if they keep bothering me.
Through the glass windows I noticed white Europeans passing through immigration without a problem. Citizens from some 27 countries, mostly European, do not need visas to enter the U.S. and therefore are not affected by the US-VISIT program. I asked myself why white people with blue eyes couldn’t be terrorists or have criminal records, but all of us black and brown people, from babies to the elderly, were assumed to be potential criminals and terrorists.
The immigration officials never did manage to fix the computer system in that high security room. Their solution was to wait until no planes were arriving and the immigration area was completely empty so they could check our records using the computers in the customer service area, where we had originally been processed, photographed and fingerprinted. Finally, after three hours, we were allowed to leave the room one by one.
Intrigued, I asked the official who finally processed me: Why did they detain me? He responded, I am sorry to say this, but your last name, Rodriguez, is too common.
After many of us missed our connecting flights, we gathered with others we did not know and, like good Latin Americans, shared dinner, discussed the experience and slept on the same floor in the airport. Without doubt, we were fellow travelers on a perilous journey.