Sunday, March 30, 2008

Returning home to Houston

After a two week trip to Mexico I returned to Houston yesterday, landing at Bush Airport. The flight had been a little difficult, the man next to me kept shoving his elbow past the armrest. He seemed oblivious to what he was doing, but I didn't say anything - (probably should have). Maybe it was an omen for what was to come. He and his wife jumped up (they were in the seats closer to the window, I had the aisle seat) and basically shoved me back out of the way so they could rush out of the plane. I told myself to be calm, maybe different people have different definitions of body space. I thought the couple was from Mexico, because they spoke no English and had trouble with the customs form. But it turned out they were Americans - they stood in line at for U.S. Citizens and Residents just like I did.

It was an interesting day. A couple behind me who were speaking only Spanish were approached by one of the ICE employees (a woman who looked like she was in her 70s, I'm wondering if ICE if hiring retired people to work at the airport) - the man asked her if he was in the wrong place, she said well, she hadn't thought about it because she was thinking he was a diplomat. He wasn't - but they were so far out of place she let them stay in the U.S. line.

I approached the counter when called and was faced by an officer named Ramos. He was nice and didn't ask any rude questions. But he kept typing something on his keyboard. I asked him if the strip on my passport didn't work anymore and he said no. He was correcting some information - Later I wondered if it was because my passport shows me with brown hair and now it's gray.

Anyway, I then picked up my suitcase and was walking through the agricultural customs section. I have never in my life had a problem doing this when I have flown. As a teenager and college student I and my friends were regularly searched when crossing back into the U.S. in a car at the Laredo international bridge. But that was so long ago it hardly crosses my mind anymore, plus like I said, it was when we crossed in a car.

All of a sudden, after the officer standing at the counter said I was ok and could leave, a young ICE officer with an Italian sounding name that starts with an "L" came out and pointed to me. I thought it was strange since I have never seen anyone get pulled out of that line.

He was very nice and formal, even apologized for taking my time and asked if I was on a schedule, I said no, but I was worried about my husband being worried while he waited on the other side. He asked if I went to Mexico on vacation or business. I said the first week was a vacation with my husband, then he returned and I had to go to Cuernavaca to do some interviews - so the officer then said "you went on business" (I had said vacation on my customs form). He asked me how many times I had traveled internationally the last year. I couldn't remember exactly and said 4-5, but it turned out to only be 3 (guess it felt like a lot because all the trips were taken since Dec. 07)

He went through my carry-on and saw my digital SLR - he said "nice camera" and asked me if was a Canon Rebel.. I said no, it's a Nikkon, and the university purchased it - he can check the silver tag on the side - that says State of Texas property. He said he didn't need to look at it. He looked through my book bag and saw I had a Mac laptop - he said "I see you use a mac, I think they are great. Have you seen the new one?" I said yes - the Mac Book Air - that it's really cool... its the laptop that is so slim and weighs hardly anything. He said no that's not it, its so small and you can type anything on it, check your email etc, but is still a laptop.

Then he asked me if I knew what the "Brazos de Dios" was. I said sure, I just published a book on Texas that has a chapter on the Brazos River. He didn't seem to hear me and went on about how La Salle came to Texas. He started to talk about Wharton County - I said I know the place - my kid's paternal grandparents are from there - (don't think he heard this either). He said "I'm from Wharton County, my family has lived on the same land for 6 generations, since back to the Civil War."

He got to my larger suitcase, (which was also a carry one but I had checked it in) and said "this is the one." He took everything out, including the books and then put things back in, asking me to zip it up. He never checked the little box I bought in Morelia that was wrapped in tissue paper and sealed with scotch tape. I'm not really sure what he was looking for.

I told him I was a professor at UH. He asked me what I taught. He seemed to get a little more serious after that. I asked him how they chose who they would search. He said it was random, that he walked out and just picked me.

I was more relaxed for a second until I remembered the guy who was coming from Europe to teach at Notre Dame and they didn't let him in the country.

As I left I reminded him about my book on Texas and said that he might find it interesting - or - that he might not like it since it has stuff on slavery. I don't remember what he said after that, but I was finally able to leave the airport.

Regardless of his courtesy, it was a strange and tense experience. Since this had never happened to me before, I couldn't help that it had something to do with this blog or my work with DREAMERS. My phones at home click so much my family has always wondered if we are one of the millions being listened to by DHS.

In his very polite double speak I heard the young officer say that his family had been in the U.S. over a century and a half -- was that a way of saying that long term residency makes you a better American? or was he insinuating he was more American than myself because I have a Spanish surname?

In a way, the statement about the land owned since the civil war felt to me like rubbing salt in a wound. Even though I was born in Houston and am a 7th generation Texas (hey, my mother's family came in 1750 to what is now south Texas and my great great grandfather was a Spanish Speaking confederate soldier! - no kidding) - I felt he was talking to all the DREAMERS, former DREAMERS or other recent immigrants that he confronts. That 6 generation thing was important for him.

When I got home my husband asked me why didn't I tell the guy about my family being here so long. I said I didn't think he would hear me anyway. Besides, I come from one of those mixed families -- my Dad was born in Mexico.

I also didn't tell him about my chapter on the Brazos River. He called the river, "Brazos de Dios" (arms of God), I titled the chapter "River of the Demonic."

He told me "welcome home" when I was walking away.

Maybe I should wear a "Daughter of the Confederacy" sign next time I fly internationally.


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