Detained by Executive Order
My mother lunged for her phone, “Hello?” “We have to be quiet and they want us to speak in English.” “Are you ok, what’s happening? Are they going to let you out soon”? “I’m fine, they have no idea what to do with us, they’ll let me go soon, I’ll call you when they do”.
My uncle wad detained at 9 am on Saturday, January 29th following Trump’s executive ordering barring Iranians, amongst six other nationalities, from entering the U.S.
He thought that he might have some trouble on his flight back. He’d probably be asked a few questions. Nothing out of the ordinary for being a middle eastern man coming off a plane in a post 9/11 world. He wasn’t expecting to be detained for 13 hours.
He had flown in to Tijuana from Mexico City and was planning to be picked up by my mother on the other side of CBX after passing through customs. CBX is a bridge that crosses from Aerpuerto Internacional de Tijuana into San Diego County. When he reached the customs agent, she asked him to follow her to a holding area to be questioned by some Immigration officers. He said, ok, and followed suit. He’s Iranian but he’s had a green card for 7 years. He’d lived in the U.S. for 40. My uncle is an American. He calls the U.S.A. home, but on Friday January 28th, Trump made him a foreigner in his homeland. He made my uncle and every Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Sudanese, Syrian and Yemeni openly subject to racial discrimination.
As he sat waiting he felt the minutes passing by. He told an Asian American officer that his sister was waiting. The officer took my mother’s information and promised to get in contact with her. After a few minutes went by my uncle asked to use the restroom. He still had his phone on him and he thought he could probably speak to her. In the stall, he pulled out his phone. She told him an officer had just spoken with her. Reassuring her he was fine he echoed the officer’s words. He is ‘being kept for questioning’ and he would be in touch as soon as he could “Go home I’ll call you when I can.” There was shouting from outside. The officers thought he was taking too long. They demanded that he exit the restroom. He hung up abruptly and opened the door to find that the 2 officers that had escorted him had turned into 6. Each had their hands on their guns.
He came to the U.S. in 1977 right before the Iranian Revolution to go to school. When I was asking him the details of his detainment I thought he’d be angrier, I thought he’d be indignant at the way he’d been treated by a country he’d lived and worked in for 40 years, that he paid taxes to and called home. The truth was it wasn’t the first time. When the Iran-Contra affair happened, immigration officers came into his school, removed every Iranian teen from class, questioned and then photographed them. When 9/11 happened and Bush threatened a war with Iran we felt it again. Reminded of our otherness. It isn’t a new wound; it is an old one made fresh again.
While around the country protests were happening at airports in major cities, including San Diego, my uncle was quietly carted away to a border patrol detention center in San Ysidro. And he had plenty of company. In route to the detention center the caged van he was being held in made two stops. It had completely filled up. At the last stop a young Iraqi girl got on. She was sobbing uncontrollably, unable to catch her breathe.
The hours dragged on as he was detained. He had woken up at 8 am the day before. At this point he had been up for over 24 hours. My uncle is diabetic. He has high blood pressure. He was being detained against his will. He could tell it was also against the will of the immigration officers as well. Most officers were apologetic, seemingly not knowing how to handle being put in the position of detaining ‘documented’ immigrants. They were uncomfortable and we’re trying to be blameless, “It’s a directive from the president. It’s not us.” There was one officer that was barking orders and treating everyone being detained like criminals. As the hours passed he grew quiet.
“It’s a directive from the president. It’s not us.”
The room had completely filled up. A holding room meant to hold 30 people now housed 50. There was a group of guys that had come to Tijuana for a party. Fitted pants, young, gelled hair smoothed back, they had been ready for a famous Tijuana night. They only forgot to consider the repercussions of being Iraqi in Trump’s America. My uncle said that when they were finally released one of them turned to the guards jokingly and said, “See you next week”. There was an Iranian guy from Sacramento, he came down with a friend that wanted to get implants. His friend was going under for the surgery so he needed somebody to drive him back. On their return, he had been detained, his friend had not been. He wasn’t sure what happened to him, fresh out of surgery with no one around. He had been weary of crossing the border and even asked the border agents on the way into Mexico if he would be allowed back in. They told him that there shouldn’t be a problem.
At one point the anxious energy of the room had become palpable. There wasn’t any room to sit, the guards were asking people not to lay on the floor. The men that had been in the bay for hours refused to listen. There was no room to sit. The levels of everyone’s voice began to rise, slowly at first but then all out once. The room was yelling. My uncle was sure they were going to riot and group this large could destroy this office. There were 9 officers, 50 detainees. My uncle raised his voice to the crowd “Don’t do anything you’re going to regret; it may not seem like it right now but we have the upper hand”.
My uncle had heard from one of the other guys that the female officer sitting at the desk in the front of the office would let you sneak a phone call if you asked her quietly. He approached her and she allowed him to call my mother, making sure to tell him he had to speak in English so she could hear what they had to say. By the time my uncle called my mother it was around 8 pm. He had already been detained for 11 hours. “Are you ok? Have they fed you? Did you take your medication? Did you know when you’ll be released?” She had spent the whole day waiting by the phone, calling anyone she could think to. Immigration, border patrol, ACLU, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers. No answer. Busy line. When I asked her, what was going through her mind; she told me she didn’t know if he would be released that day, sometime in the week, if they wouldn’t allow him through. She didn’t know what to think. No information. All the while she’s getting frantic phone calls from their parents and my uncle’s girlfriend. Everyone was sick with worry. Iranians are famously bad at taking bad news. For this reason, they always keep bad news from each other. If you don’t have to hear it, you won’t. And that’s where I was. Clueless 400 miles away in the Bay.
“Are they going to let you out soon? Can you call us when they do?” My uncle locked eyes with the officer, she nodded her head, “Yes”.
It was going on 12 hours now and it was my uncles turn to be questioned. For his culture and heritage. For being in the final stretch of a 20-year waiting game to become a naturalized citizen but still waiting on a hearing date. For the color of his skin. “Why were you in Mexico? What is your son’s name? Your sisters name? What is your address?” My uncle answered each question knowing that all this information was already on record. Easily found in any of his paperwork. If it was due diligence it hardly felt like it. He looked at the Egyptian-American officer and said “I’ve lived in this country for 40 years. I’ve probably lived here longer than you have.”
“Sir please don’t be upset right now, I could be sitting exactly where you are in a couple months.”
There was another famous group that as I recall, when asked why they did what they did, said something like “we were just doing our jobs.”
Following the questioning my uncle was being processed to be released. It was now 10pm. The holding bays were still full of people. Mexican, Iraqi, Iranian. They had allowed him to call my mother and she was on her way to pick him up. This 48-hour odyssey was almost at an end. As he was walking out he saw a woman speaking to an officer. She was desperate, you could see it in her eyes she was trying to ask for help without crying, without fully losing her composure. Her 7-year-old son could barely keep still. He was fidgeting and nervous. My uncle stopped to address the officer. “Please do something to help her, they need to get out of here”.
Her son was the same age as his.
His heart broke.