Another System to Subvert
The attacks on civil liberties -- INS roundups, Homeland Security laws, increased surveillance -- have a lot of Americans worried about their rights being taken away, but my family and I dealt with not having rights long before 9/11.
Call me Jose Hernandez. It's not my real name.
As an immigrant from Mexico who has been undocumented until recently, I am used to not having my rights respected here. Fact is, my family and I had to survive without rights for quite some time, so giving some more for "security" really doesn't bother us the way it would folks used to having their rights on paper.
I remember what it feels like to be thought of as the threat to American security. And I can feel for Arab-Americans who are now getting looked at with suspicion everywhere they go. We all fall into the same boat. In my mind, all the policies aren't all that different from the 1990s. The INS just changed their target from Mexicans crossing the border at Tijuana to anyone who looks like an Arab getting off the plane.
My family came from Mexico when I was 11 years old. In California we led discrete lives, and rarely went out. My life as an undocumented immigrant meant that I grew up with added challenges and frustrations other kids didn't have to deal with. I did not have the freedoms of feeling comfortable in public or getting a driver's license or bank account. Getting a job was nearly impossible.
When I had to go to the free clinic for vaccine shots, I had to memorize my fake social security number. Even when we would get food from the church, I made it a point to never contradict the information my mom gave.
These new INS roundups of men from certain countries strike a powerful chord in me. I remember when my mom and I pushed a grocery cart from our apartment complex to a local strip mall. At the time, my mother was still really young and I was dressed like a city boy. We were buying food at a taco-burger place when I felt the tight grip of my mother's hand. When I looked outside, people where running were falling all over the place. Officers in mint-green suits were rounding everyone up like cattle. It was an INS raid.
When I saw an officer approach my mother, fear ran through my body. I tried to keep my cool, and apparently so did my mom. The officer looked at us for a quick minute, said hello to my mom, and she said the word she knew very well: "hi." He left us alone.
We learned that looking American can save you from deportation.
Still, if the government or public has made you an enemy, you live constantly with paranoia. Every time a cop got next to me, I thought I would be pulled over, taken in and eventually deported. I got a ticket once, and I was terrified in traffic court. For everyone else, all they had to worry about was traffic school, but for me a misdemeanor could have meant a ticket out of the country. Luckily, the judge didn't do a deep search on my background and I just got fined.
When I was 18, I saw the light. I came across a connection at the Department of Motor Vehicles. It cost me about $2,000, but it got me a license. From then on I adapted and learned to live in survival mode. I developed a unique way to not be noticed or stand out. I dodged anything that has to do with cops, and with the right cash I purchased anything that the law required an American to have.
The Homeland Security folks may think that limiting peoples' civil liberties will smoke out the immigrants who are underground, but the truth is, many of us are used to getting around the tactics. If you have street smarts you can make your own rights and buy your freedoms. What my family and I learned over the years is that, even if the government sets up ways to restrict your freedoms, you can almost always find a way to beat the system.
Jose Hernandez, 23, is a writer for Silicon Valley De-Bug, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project.