Are We Welcome Entrepreneurs or Unwanted Criminals?
“We’re denying you re-entry into the United States and deporting you back to Mexico tonight. You won’t be allowed back into the US.”
These were the dreadful and unexpected words echoing through my mind as I found myself detained in a dark, stifling cage in the back of a police van. I was escorted by three officers, a man and woman in the front and another woman in the back. I could see the officer in the back playing away on her phone. The other two were trading jokes, oblivious to my distress. The sealed doors of the van kept me and one other prisoner, a non-english speaking Mexican girl, isolated from the outside world. Only a small window taunted me with the freedom outside on this sunny Los Angeles day. I asked myself, endlessly: How did I end up here?
In April 2014, I had returned from Guadalajara, Mexico after running a successful hackathon for the non-profit that I founded, Hack for Big Choices. Our mission is to galvanize and empower world citizens of all backgrounds to use their talents and passions to solve real community problems: food safety, HIV prevention, education access, etc. It has been deeply inspiring to be able to prove that our model works and that it is creating positive community change. Our work has been recognized as part of the global effort to eradicate poverty by 2030 through social innovation by +SocialGood, a movement started by the UN. I was looking forward to coming back to share what I had learned from the vibrant, entrepreneurial community I discovered in Mexico. I never suspected my entry back through LAX airport would become an exercise in frustration and near deportation.
I’ve lived in the US legally for seven years and I travel abroad quite often for business. I’ve become accustomed to the doldrums of international travel and endless shuffle of immigration lines. You get to the passport officer, show your visa, get asked a few questions and move on through. However, this time I was given the silent treatment and told to report to the immigration office without any explanation. At the office, I was told to just sit and wait. The lack of the common courtesy of an explanation had me worried and it was a long wait. No one would talk to me and my requests to use the restroom were repeatedly ignored until a random officer walking by noticed and was kind enough to escort me. He asked me what I had done. I was upset and not feeling talkative, so I simply answered, “Nothing”. He replied, “You seem like a good girl. Explain what happened and everything will be fine.” I still wasn’t sure of what I even had to explain!
After considerable time, I was finally escorted into an interrogation room and confronted by two intimidating CBP officers who held looks of scorn and condemnation on their faces. I felt pre-judged before I was even told what I was being held for. The officers proceeded to question why I held four separate visas and had been traveling back and forth from the US for the past seven years. I explained to them that I had come to the US to further my education and that my evolution from student to social entrepreneur mirrored my travels and different visas I held.
They seemed to only see an aberrant foreigner randomly traveling to and from the US, instead of a skilled person that American companies have tried to hire legally.
I further explained that my current work visa application had been complicated due to a filing mistake and that I had been waiting on a decision. This fell on deaf ears. They searched my backpack, found my hackathon badge which drew incredible suspicion and asked, “What’s a hackathon? Are you a hacker?” I slowly explained that I’m a social entrepreneur promoting global change through the concept of ‘hackathons’ where attendees work together and find solutions to community issues within a tight time constraint. They were dismissive and didn’t seem to want to hear an explanation. We spoke two totally different languages. Mine, the language of reasoned hope and optimism. Theirs, the language of suspicious cynicism, fear and ignorance.
After a litany of questions I was finally given a reason as to why I was being held. The two officers viewed my travels as ‘gaming the system’. I denied this citing that I run a legitimate non-profit organization based in the US, but they were adamant with their stance. My previous notion of being pre-judged and condemned was accurate. This is when I heard those dreadful words:
“We’re denying you re-entry into the United States and deporting you back to Mexico tonight. You won’t be allowed back into the US”
I was handed a plane ticket, put into a small cage in the back of a police van and transported to a secondary detention center. I was being treated like a common criminal without having committed any crime. I was frantic.
My life was being disrupted over a visa technicality.
I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told I would have to wait until after being transported to the detention facility. This is how I found myself stuck in a cage in the back of a police van.
During the ride, I had time to reflect on the past seven years of my life in America. I had come to improve my english and continue my university studies with dreams of attending UC Berkeley. Over the years, I have met a great group of friends who have supported my dreams and passed on valuable skills and worldviews helping me to become the better person I am today. I was also given the opportunity through a meritocratic system to prove myself as a social entrepreneur. I learned that to make something of yourself within the system you had to hustle and sometimes even bend some rules to create positive change. Innovation always requires disruption and Silicon Valley taught me this important lesson. I was on a happier path here than my home country could provide.
The US and Silicon Valley had become my true home.
The opportunities in this country never cease to amaze me. Here we are able to chase our entrepreneurial dreams and work towards building a better world regardless of gender, ethnicity or creed. When I embarked on my own dream with Hack for Big Choices last year, I realized how much I had absorbed and learned here. I had seen the best America had to offer. However, sitting in the back of the van, I was beginning to experience the darker side of the country I had grown to love and call home.
At our destination, four officers surrounded me. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed walking against the traffic of happy travelers making their way back to everyday life. How was I being perceived? I soon found myself locked in a room with a pedophile, a woman smuggling $25,000 in cash and unsavory others. The situation was getting out of hand for me and I couldn’t keep back the tears anymore. I didn’t belong here. This wasn’t the America that I thought I knew.
I was close to resigning myself to my fate, but I still had some fight left in me and asked to speak to a supervising CBP officer. I was taken to another interrogation room and given a final chance to speak to a supervising officer and one other. I composed myself and retold my entire story to them. An eternity passed, but I was finally given semi-positive news.
The tall, blonde woman supervisor told me that she didn’t want to ruin my life and was willing to let me back into the country on a tourist visa as long as I settled my affairs and left the country within a month.
This meant I wouldn’t be allowed to return for at least a year. It was a small respite after what I had just experienced and I accepted my fate grudgingly. For the first time during the whole ordeal I felt like I was finally being treated like a human being instead of a statistic. However, before I was finally released, the other officer turned to me and said hatefully, “If it wasn’t for my supervisor here, I would have deported you immediately.” Why did he harbor such hate and anger towards foreigners?
I have now been forced to leave the US and I have a better understanding as to why many immigrants manifest feelings of being persecuted while simply trying to make life better for themselves and others. We are viewed as outsiders needing to prove ourselves worthy of being in the US. At the same time, I know there are also those who understand the difficulties faced by immigrants and are working hard to solve these issues.
I’m taking with me the many years of education and experience invested in me. My feelings about my time in America are bittersweet and I still have many lingering questions about what happened to me. The most important question being:
Are we truly welcome here as budding foreign entrepreneurs or will we forever be perceived as unwanted immigrants?
I hope that my story can help fuel the need for positive immigration reform in a country that has given me so much to be thankful for. America is where I was given the chance to become a strong, independent woman capable of leading an international organization. I still think of Silicon Valley as my home and, though I will be kept out of the US for at least a year.
I will continue to further develop business relations for Hack For Big Choices within the international community so that I can one day come back and create a better world with the country I still love. I only hope that it will have me back.
[Update 26th February 2016] In January 2016, after 19 months, I have been able to come back to the U.S. with a O1 visa.
I’m grateful to all the people who supported me in this long journey, especially my lawyer Tahmina Watson , and Craig Montuori . They are both doing a tremendous work to improve the immigration system in the US.
I’m honored that I have the opportunity to work in this country, contribute and share the same values that characterized the vision that Obama has for the U.S.
“We’re here today because we believe in the power of entrepreneurship — the basic notion that if you’ve got an idea and if you really work hard and you’re able to pick yourself up if you stumble a couple of times, you can eventually turn that idea into a reality. And this matters to us because encouraging the spirit of entrepreneurship can help us to tackle some of the greatest challenges that we face around the world.”
“At a time when we’re still working to sustain the global economic recovery and put people back to work, helping folks to start new business can spur broad-based growth, here at home and around the world. At a time when the world is more interconnected than ever, we’ve got unprecedented opportunities to help more people access capital and resources and networks that they need to succeed. At a time that we’re facing challenges that no country can meet by itself - — lifting people out of poverty, combating climate change, preventing the spread of disease — helping social entrepreneurs mobilize and organize brings more people together to find solutions.”— President Barack Obama
[My thanks to Ehb Teng for his help co-authoring this post.]