By José Orduña
This year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15. To kick off the occasion, we’re sharing an excerpt from José Orduña’s The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement. Orduña’s memoir chronicles his process of becoming a US citizen in a post-9/11 America. In the following passage, he recaptures the moment of receiving his first green card at the age of ten and describes how the governmental entity behind the green card changed drastically after the September 11 attacks.
When I was ten my dad gave me my first wallet—it was green, with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the outside. Then he handed me my identification card, my first green card, which was actually pink. He said we’d gotten it when we’d gone to Juárez but that he didn’t think I was ready to carry it then. I remembered we’d gone very suddenly and that I missed my thirdgrade class trip to an amusement park, that a man I’d never seen showed up at our door in Chicago, and that my dad let him into our house. The next day we were on a Greyhound bus that took three days to get to El Paso, Texas, and then we immediately took a cab across a bridge into Juárez. We stayed in a strip mall motel where the television in the next room played straight through the night. I remember lying awake with my eyes open, watching my dad go to the window to peer out through the blinds several times and also going to the door to stand silently in the darkness listening. He got up at four o’clock to hold a place in a line across the road, and later that morning I watched my mom fix me breakfast with a mini cereal box that was on the dresser, powdered milk she’d gotten at a gas station, and a bottle of water. I remember being enthralled by the powdered milk.
At age ten I looked at my new card. Just above my three-quarterangle bust was a term I hadn’t known: “RESIDENT ALIEN.”
“Ha,” I laughed. “I’m an alien.”
I remember my dad staring back at me with a grim look, the one he used to shoot me when he needed me to know something serious was happening. I remember him telling me I was a man now, despite my crooked flattop and wiry frame.
“A man never leaves home without his wallet.”
Then he asked if I remembered Jorge.
“Jorge, the fat guy with a limp that used to work with me at the hotel.”
Yes. I’d seen him hobbling around after a soccer ball at one of the rare social gatherings my father had time off work for.
“Jorge didn’t have his green card with him.”
I’d gotten distracted by Michelangelo’s orange mask, so he gently raised my head with his fingers.
“He’s gone now.”
I didn’t really understand. I’d never really understood what it meant that we lived in Chicago but had come from Mexico because it was never explained to me in explicit terms. Like most children I took things as they came, assimilating almost everything into my milieu and assuming it was all normal. I did recognize that this thing he’d given me meant something important, though, because it came with my own wallet, which was an accessory I’d seen all my uncles, my dad, and my friends’ dads handling. It’s where they kept the things that tied them to the adult world of obligations, transactions, and identifications. I remember thinking it would be impossible to keep track of this object at all times, but that’s exactly what I did.
My dad smiled at me, patted me on the head, and told me to put it in my pocket.
“Don’t lose it.”
Years later, my new green card, this one actually green, is in my wallet as I enter the Department of Homeland Security office. It says “PERMANENT RESIDENT CARD” at the top, a slightly nicer iteration to carry around. It displays the Department of Homeland Security seal, not the Department of Justice seal, because the “War on Terror” birthed this hungry new entity that absorbed and restructured twenty-two federal agencies. The US government reacted to the events of 9/11 by creating a top-secret architecture whose growth was so unmitigated that it’s still impossible to know how much it costs to operate, how many people it includes, and exactly how many programs fall under its rubric. Another result was the increased privatization of counter terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. In 2004, Accenture, an offshore “global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company,” became the wellpaid brain behind USVISIT, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. According to the DH website,
USVISIT systems provide identity verification and analysis services and datasharing capabilities to multiple stakeholders, including the Departments of Justice, Defense, and State; DHS components; the Intelligence Community; State and local law enforcement agencies; and a growing list of foreign government partners.
In 2013 the program was renamed the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), but its mission will remain essentially the same: to capture the unique human body characteristics of as many people as possible, link it to their biographical information, and make it easily accessible to “stakeholders.” By now the OBIM database, the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT), must circulate millions if not hundreds of millions of biometric identities, and the goal is to “accommodate the storage, extractions, and matching of new modalities, such as face and iris, and to integrate biographic and biometric data more effectively.”
There is no doubt that IDENT has helped the Obama administration reach recordbreaking deportation figures year after year.
The juridical presence in the walls.
About the Author
José Orduña was born in Córdoba, Veracruz, and immigrated to Chicago when he was two. He is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and active in Latin American solidarity. He is the author of The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement.