If you were born in the United States, you are automatically a U.S. citizen. What would you do, then, if you found yourself stripped of your passport and deported to another country? Blanca Maria Alfaro knows firsthand.
Alfaro was born in Houston, Tex., in 1979. She left the U.S. just shy of her 5th birthday and largely grew up in El Salvador with her father. Her mother, a naturalized U.S. citizen, remained in Texas. Alfaro, who grew up speaking Spanish, has few memories of her early childhood in the U.S. but she always knew she was a citizen. Around the time she turned 16, with U.S. birth certificate in hand, she applied and was approved for a U.S. passport. She saved up some cash and purchased a round-trip ticket to New York in 1998. Alfaro’s partner had family there, and she wanted take a short vacation there. But that two-week trip was cut short by immigration authorities at New York City’s JFK Airport.
"They put me into a room with a lot of immigration agents," recalls Alfaro. She was shackled and handcuffed and repeatedly asked to write her down name only to have the paper torn up by the agents. Alfaro, who was just 18 at the time, was confused; it was her first time traveling alone, and the agents mostly spoke to her in English, which she didn’t understand. But it soon became clear to her that she was being accused of falsifying her identity.
For the first few hours, Alfaro says she stood by what she knew to be true: She was born in Texas, and had a birth certificate and other documents to prove it. But as the hours wore on, Alfaro says she started to feel defeated.
Alfaro signed a sworn statement that consisted of more than 30 questions. The document indicates that the statement was given "in the Spanish language," and without the use of an interpreter.
Alfaro was bound for an entire night and the shackles and handcuffs weren’t removed until she agreed to sign a statement swearing that her name was Maria Mabel Alfaro–her half-sister’s name. One of the agents threatened her with prison.
Bryan Johnson, a Long Island, New York-based attorney who has been helping Alfaro for about a year, who has scoured government documents related to to the case, finds the admission troubling. "They asked her leading questions," he says.
And that’s true: The statements were a series of yes or no questions, that gave little room for actual answers. Nevertheless, Alfaro was exhausted from the interrogation, and finally felt relief after agreeing to sign the document. She was stripped of her passport and was deported to El Salvador the next day.
"It’s because I speak Spanish and the immigration agents are racist," says Alfaro. "They can’t believe that someone who doesn’t speak English can actually be a citizen. It’s like speaking Spanish makes you criminal."
Not Yet Home
When Alfaro returned to El Salvador, she was determined to set things straight. She went back to the embassy and explained what happened at JFK airport in New York and they agreed to help her obtain a new passport.
Alfaro had given birth to a son, Oscar, in 1996; in 1997, she welcomed another, Eduardo. In 1999, she once again visited New York, and started thinking that it would be a great place to raise a family. She was able to make several visits back to the U.S. with little incident and as time passed, she started thinking of returning home permanently. But those hopes would once again be dashed.
In 2005, Alfaro headed to the U.S. embassy in El Salvador to register her children’s citizenship. At that time, however, embassy officials confiscated her passport. They claimed they had evidence that her birth was registered in El Salvador. Alfaro had at one time hired a corrupt lawyer who obtained a fake Salvadoran birth certificate in order to help her get a local identification. But that document had already been rejected by a Salvadoran court.
Still, Alfaro found herself without a U.S. passport. Wanting to return to the U.S., Alfaro gathered all the documents she could think of–her U.S. birth certificate, vaccination records, airline tickets dating back to 1984–and hired a coyote to help her cross into the United States in 2013.
"It cost me $7,000 to return to the United States that time," she says, Alfaro rode in a truck from El Salvador through Mexico. She spent several days crossing through the desert from Mexico into the United States, dodging border agents and braving the elements.
Once she arrived, her sister, Iris, who’s been living in Houston for years, picked her up and drove her to immigration officials at a nearby port of entry. And it was then that an entirely new nightmare began.
"I was so nervous, I think I was shaking," says Alfaro adding that immigration agents pushed her around and threatened her sister with trafficking charges. Alfaro was then taken into custody. She spent her first couple of nights in a field office before landing in two separate detention facilities over two weeks.
"I prayed for God to keep me," she says. Alfaro’s relatives helped find a lawyer that would work on her case. But just as arbitrarily as immigration agents detained her, they released her. Alfaro’s sister picked her up from detention in Jena, La., and brought her home to Houston. She eventually received her third U.S. passport from authorities late last year, while living with her in-laws in Long Island, New York.
Today, Alfaro lives in Long Island with her two older children. Her two younger children are still back in El Salvador with her husband. The family remains split, but Alfaro hopes to reunite everyone soon.
Now 17, her son Oscar is a high school junior. He’s lived in New York for the past four years, and is fluent in English. He, his brother, and their mother returned to El Salvador on their U.S. passports in January for a brief visit. When they returned to the JFK a little over a week ago, immigration authorities took Alfaro in for questioning. This time, however, Oscar was able to witness and understand what his mother was being subjected to.
"They were laughing at her and when they looked at my documents they started to talk and make fun of me, too," says Oscar. He says the agents changed their tone when they realized he spoke English.
Oscar and his mother both tried to text their attorney but an agent screamed, "No phones!" and compelled Alfaro to show him her private text messages. They were held for about an hour.
Despite the treatment she’s received, Alfaro wants to bring her family together to the country of her birth. She’s working to bring a case against the U.S. government for violating so many of her rights. "I know that I’m a citizen, and I feel that I’m a citizen," says Alfaro. "Maybe one day, I’ll be treated like one."
Until then, Alfaro’s case illustrates what little recourse U.S.-born citizens have when confronted by immigration authorities. Government agencies like the State Department can make unilateral decisions that can dramatically alter a person’s life–even if the person in question isn’t an immigrant. And if that sounds Kafkaesque, you might want to think again.
"In Kafka’s world, it’s even better, because at least there’s a judge there," says Johnson.