by Julio Navarrete
“Were you born in the United States, or in another country?” The officer’s question echoes through my head as the blood rushes through my body like a runaway river. “I’m sorry officer, I don’t feel comfortable answering that question,” I stutter. “Okay then, turn around and put your hands behind your back. You’re under arrest.” The officer reaches for his handcuffs. I can already feel the cold metal pressed tightly around my wrists. This cannot be happening. I always thought that if I were arrested, it would be for taking a stand. I had pictured brightly painted protest signs and a rush of adrenaline as I chanted for just immigration reform. Not this. I can feel the officer’s eyes piercing through me from behind his sunglasses.
The twelve-hour journey to my uncle’s house in Idaho had started at 5:00 A.M. that morning. I nudged my mother awake to kiss her goodbye. As she made the sign of the cross over my face, she warned me not to forget my uncle’s gift, a chili plant from our garden whose peppers could make a grown man cry. Hours went by driving through the Nevada desert. The sandy landscape reminded me of the white residue left on my skin after a long run. I felt excited to raid the pawnshops and arcades with my cousins in Idaho.
I had just driven into Winnemucca, Nevada, population 7,000, when I spotted the patrol car camouflaged on the side of Interstate 80, like a lion amongst the bushes waiting for the perfect moment to attack his prey. I stared in the rearview mirror to make sure he didn’t follow. I smiled as the distance between us stretched, but suddenly his sirens came to life. My heartbeat sped up as the patrol raced toward me at full speed. Before I knew it, he was right behind me. This can’t be happening, I didn’t do anything wrong, I thought to myself as I drove my car to the side of the road in disbelief.
He has his handcuffs out now, and lifts them as if to show me he’s serious. “If you’re not willing to answer my questions, I’m going to place you under arrest,” warns the officer through his thick mustache. Feeling defeated, I reach for my wallet and pull out my Mexican consulate card. The officer asks why I didn’t show it to him before and listens attentively as I explain my fear of the “Secure Communities” program. The story is much too familiar now—countless people getting deported after being arrested by an officer who’d pulled them over for a simple traffic violation.
He shakes his head. “Let me explain something to you, my job is to look for people carrying drugs and weapons, people who are on parole or have outstanding warrants. Your immigration status doesn’t concern me.” I don’t know whether to believe him or not. I can still see the handcuffs. Where would they take me? I picture my mother’s face when she receives a phone call from my uncle saying I never arrived. “Why are you driving without a license?” I can’t get myself to look him in the eyes, so I look at the ground and stare at his dusty black shoes. “Are there drugs or weapons in the car? Are you on parole? Any warrants?” My hands start to shake as I struggle to remain calm. “No sir, no weapons or drugs, I’m not on parole, and I don’t have any warrants.” He explains that the reason he pulled me over is because I was driving in the left lane, which is only to be used when passing another vehicle. I apologize and tell him I didn’t know that. “Maybe if you had a license you would have known,” he says.
For the first time, I notice the badge on the side of his arm: Humboldt County Sheriff. There’s no way I’m getting out of this one. How can I explain that I’m coming from San Jose, California, headed toward Nampa, Idaho, without a license, and expect the officer to say, Okay, drive safely! The interrogation continues: Have you ever been arrested? How do you attend college if you’re undocumented? What is your uncle’s name? My mind goes blank. What does your uncle do for a living? Who do you live with? What does your mother do for a living? How much money do you have on you? How much money is in your bank account? How did you earn that money? How do you pay for school? Do you do drugs? Why haven’t you filed to adjust your immigration status? Can’t your uncle petition for you? “I have a friend who is from meeshooacan,” he says, as if the word hurts the inside of his mouth, “and she was able to get her sister a Green Card in fourteen months.” His rapid-fire questions give me whiplash.
The sheriff asks if I would consent to a search of my vehicle. I already know what happens if I refuse. The search begins as the sheriff shuffles through my backpack. He asks if there are any hidden compartments in the car. The question has never crossed my mind. “None that I know of.” I tell the sheriff. I’m instructed to walk at least thirty feet away from the car so he can bring out his K9. I am terrified of dogs. From a distance, I feel like I’m watching an episode of Cops. I imagine the dog chasing me down on the side of the highway. The sheriff holds a stick with a tennis ball attached to the end of it. He dangles the toy in front of the black German Sheppard as they make their way around my car in some sort of awkward dance. The cars going by slow down trying to get a better glimpse.
“If you have a kilo of cocaine or a gun in your car, you’re hiding it very well because my dog didn’t find anything,” he says with a smirk on his face. I’m not sure if I should laugh. The sheriff then suggests that I get a U.S. government-issued I.D. “You should tell your uncle to help you get one from Washington.” I couldn’t believe that the man who was just about to arrest me for not answering a question was now suggesting that I commit fraud on the state of Washington. The sheriff returns my ID and says, “You’re free to go. Drive safely!”