"We're denying you reentry into the United States and deporting you back to Mexico tonight. You won't be allowed back into the U.S."
Those were the dreadful and unexpected words I received from two Customs and Border Protection officers as I returned to the U.S. through LAX airport.
My name is Aurora Chisté, proud Italian and founder of Hack for Big Choices, and this is how I was nearly deported and treated as a common criminal.
In April 2014, I had returned from Guadalajara, Mexico, after running a successful hackathon. 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 would become an exercise in frustration and near deportation.
I've lived in the U.S. legally for seven years, and I travel abroad quite often for business. I've become accustomed to the doldrums of international travel and the 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 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 prejudged 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 U.S. for the past seven years. I explained to them that I had come to the U.S. to further my education and that my evolution from student to social entrepreneur mirrored my travels and the different visas I held. They seemed to see only an aberrant foreigner randomly traveling to and from the U.S., 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 and found my hackathon badge, which drew incredible suspicion. They 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 why I was being held. The two officers viewed my travels as "gaming the system." I denied this, citing that I run a legitimate nonprofit organization based in the U.S., but they were adamant with their stance. My previous notion of being prejudged and condemned was accurate.
This is when I heard those dreadful words, "We're denying you reentry into the United States and deporting you back to Mexico tonight." 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.
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 I thought I knew.
I was 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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 hope that my story can help fuel positive immigration reform in a country that has given me so much to be thankful for. America is where I learned to become a strong, independent woman capable of leading an international organization. Even though I will be kept out of the U.S. for at least a year, I will continue my work with Hack For Big Choices within the international community. Hopefully, I can one day come back and create a better world with the country I still love.
My thanks to Ehb Teng for his help co-authoring this post.