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I was in a race-blind experiment when I was 11, and US immigration officers failed

By Sidney Thomas, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Wielding our US passports, my mother and I are in an immigration line at Miami International Airport awaiting reentry into the country she’s called home for 18 years and one I’ve always called home.

My mother is the epitome of put together. She came to the United States at age 15 with my grandfather. Her mastery of English is impeccable. She has a graduate degree, and has fought her way up the occupational ladder, fighting gender discrimination, being a Latina, and being a Latina of color in the United States. She’s a US citizen.

As we approach the glass-encased immigration cubicle, the white man in blue uniform perks up from his stool. An expression of curiosity floods his face. My mother flashes him a warm smile, her custom with everyone she meets, to which he responds asking for our notarized paperwork and my documentation to travel without both parents since I am only 11 years old.

My mom’s last name is Portela. My last name is Thomas. She remarried after divorcing my father. I am white with light brown, almost blonde, hair, due in large part to my white, English father. She is dark skinned with jet-black hair. We don’t look much alike and our different last names don’t help in convincing the immigration officer that I am in fact her daughter.

Despite being prepared with a notarized letter of consent from my father to vouch that I can travel with my mother and my birth certificate with my mother’s name on it, we are pulled into a TSA screening room where we are questioned about my identity, my mother’s identity and why we are traveling. After an indiscernible amount of time, and phone calls to my father who lives in Colorado, we are allowed entry into my native, but in that moment strangely foreign, country.

I had gone to and from the Dominican Republic many times. We are aware of the impending looks of doubt and worry from immigration officers. Given our recurring situation, my mother never has to pause and dig through her purse for forms. She has them in her hand, in a crisp manila folder, the moment we step in line. Not once has there been an issue when passing through immigration into the Dominican Republic. Issues arise only when we reenter the United States and only when I travel with my Pocahontas-esque mother.

My aunt is a flight attendant for American Airlines. Though she is my mother’s sister she, like me, is white. I often travel with her because flight attendants receive reduced ticket rates for family members and I enjoy visiting my grandparents often regardless of whether I go with my aunt or with my mother.

In order to avoid the fees and inevitable hassle associated with traveling without either of my biological parents internationally, my aunt often lies and says she’s my mother.

My aunt in 2007. (Photo credit: Juana Fernandez)
My mom in 2016. (Photo credit: Alejandro Portela)

I am instructed to play along by both my aunt and my mother. In combination with her light complexion that matches mine and her status as a flight attendant, we’re never questioned. No one thinks twice when she laughs diffidently and introduces me as, “Mi hija, Sidney.”

The irony of this treatment was not lost on me at age 11. My mother has dark skin, told the truth, and was questioned. My aunt has light skin, told a lie, granted one with authority from my mother, and waltzed through immigration without a problem. These experiences have stuck with me, and they are glaring.

My mother put herself through college while she was pregnant at 21 years old while working part time as a waitress. She later worked as a sales person at clothing retailers where she was eventually promoted to managerial positions and was able to work her way up the occupational ladder to where she is today a regional director for a corporation.

She has beat out male counterparts for positions normally dominated by men in the corporate world and left the shattered bits of gender barriers in her wake wherever she has worked. She is fluent in three languages and has been awarded professional and philanthropic awards throughout her career.

Yet as she continues to collect accolades, the constant reminder that her dark complexion matters dulls her achievements as a Latin-American woman when she tries to travel with her children.

Though my aunt and my mother are both women from the Dominican Republic, their immigrant experiences are inextricably linked with the colors of their skin.

It is not hard for me to imagine how often my mother’s achievements are hard-fought, yet frustrated, and how often she compensates as if she’s going through airports, manila folder in hand, me in tow, flashing a smile, yet knowing what she’s been up against.

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