How U.S. Immigration Officers Shackled My Ankle With a Device that Barked Strange Commands

"The speaker ominously warned, 'Leaving your master inclusion zone.'"

Photo Credit: Danti

The following is an excerpt from Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement.It is part of a short series on the youth-led immigrant rights movement, produced in solidarity withthe 11 Million Dreams Week of Action.For an overview of the movement, you can read the first piece of the series here.

The last ten years have been a time of unprecedented immigrant youth activism, and I have been proud to be a part of it. My family came to the United State from Argentina in 1999. My father, an accounts manager, lost his job during the Argentine economic crisis triggered in part by the policies advanced by global corporations. He decided his best hope to survive was to come to the United States to find work as an accountant. We were economic migrants in a world of migrating capital.

My mother, a kindergarten teacher by training, underwent the career transition many immigrants do when coming to America. She worked in the food service industry at Jack in the Box, the manufacturing industry in a sweatshop-like packaging company, and the immigrant entrepreneur industry, selling empanadas to fellow churchgoers. At the same time, my parents raised their children and held on to the same American dream they embraced when they entered the country: the belief that hard work and a commitment to education would result in a better life for us.

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I learned English as a teenager reading Catcher in the Rye, watching World Wrestling Entertainment, and enjoying Top 40 hits. I did well in school and attended UCLA, where I was one of the leaders of IDEAS. One of my transformative events while at UCLA was a road trip with Tam and Cinthya to Seattle to get our driver’s licenses. Because California prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining licenses, we traveled to the state of Washington, where policies were more relaxed. Road trips are a rite of passage for many young people, but ours had a much more significant purpose. We were able to get licenses that could establish our identities, prove our dates of birth, allow us to travel, and afford privileges that most students take for granted.

At UCLA I worked on a campus radio show, wrote extensively about immigrant youth issues, and contributed to the publication Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, which captured my story and that of other undocumented classmates. College was a time when I carefully reflected on my condition as an undocumented person. Even though I was an adult, I was less than a second-class citizen, with no path to legalize my status. And to the government, I was a criminal, though I had broken no law.

The last decade of undocumented youth activism has been marked by a dramatic intensification of immigration enforcement. Increased budgets for border patrols, criminalization of immigrants, and biometrics-based identification systems are part of a large-scale government crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Deportations are on the rise, and the fear in immigrant communities is escalating.

Despite these increased risks, I took a chance to travel around the country to see what changes could be made and what people were doing to fight the backlash against immigrants. After graduating, I worked as an intern at the UCLA Labor Center and went on speaking tours to educate student, labor, and community organizations about the plight of immigrant youth. I went public with my story and appeared on national television, on the radio, and in newspapers. In April 2009, I moved to Washington, DC, to volunteer full time to work for the passage of the federal DREAM Act. I was one of the founding board members of United We Dream, the national network of undocumented immigrant students and allies working for social change.

But the risks caught up with me. In February 2010, after attending a United We Dream meeting in Minnesota, I was detained at the Minneapolis airport by an overzealous Transportation Security Administration agent and turned over to the border patrol. Two days later, I was given an order of deportation. Fellow Dream Act students, supporters, and immigrant rights advocates launched a national campaign to stop my deportation. My deportation order was temporarily suspended, I was instructed to renew my Argentine passport, and I was granted temporary work authorization. Since then, my life has been in limbo. Immigration purgatory has become my reality.

Tam was especially helpful during this time. She was used to routine check- ins with ICE. Although she could not be deported because of her “stateless” status, she still had to report regularly to the closest ICE office. She said, “Go at the end of the day. If you go early, they are going to make you wait for hours. But if you catch them at the end of the day, they are rushing to go home. They have families to go home to.” Tam and I chatted after my first report date with ICE, but a few months later, she and Cinthya were gone, and I still miss them deeply.

A year and a half later, my immigration case took a turn for the worse. In September 2011, when I reported to the ICE office in Virginia for a routine check-in, without warning or notice, I was placed under a strict supervision program. They confiscated my passport and placed a thick rubber and plastic shackle on my ankle. For ten miserable days, I was forced to wear an electronic GPS monitoring device twenty- four hours a day. Every few hours, it would bark out strange commands until I pressed a button to make it stop. Some instructions were clear: “Call your officer,” or “Recharge the battery.” But on other occasions, the voice on the speaker ominously warned, “Leaving your master inclusion zone.” I had to stand by a wall socket three hours each day to recharge the battery.

The shackling device is one of the dehumanizing tools used by a private company with a lucrative contract with the Department of Homeland Securities, paid for by US taxpayers. To the private contractor monitoring my every move, I was one more undocumented immigrant being subjected to degrading treatment for profit.

As an immigrant rights activist living in our nation’s capital, I was no stranger to the massive and inhumane deportation system that has defined US immigration policy in the twenty-first century. More than one million people have been deported over the last three years, giving the Obama administration the dubious distinction of deporting more people in one term than the George W. Bush administration did in two.

As a result of a national campaign, the shackle was removed from my ankle. But for many months, dozens of DREAM-Act- eligible students have been similarly detained, shackled, and threatened with deportation. Each case that comes to the public light has mobilized thousands of people to stop the deportation. And we have succeeded in stopping dozens of deportations of immigrant youth.

But each case to deport dreamers is a huge waste of government resources and represents an immoral policy that victimizes young people who want nothing more than to contribute to this country. The failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform is harming immigrant youth, immigrant communities, and our society as a whole.

I am part of a growing movement demanding that the Obama administration use administrative relief to stop the deportation of DREAM-Act-eligible students and grant us work authorization. This would be in the best interests of my fellow dreamers, our families, and our communities, and would allow us to use our skills and talents to give back to this country we call home.

Despite the setbacks and constant uncertainty, I feel hopeful. The Dream movement is winning, and our campaign to secure the humane treatment of immigrant youth will one day be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2012. Reprinted with permission of UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, Los Angeles, CA.