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Thursday, August 09, 2007

When being brown is illegal

Sometimes something happens that is so horrific, even the General is left speechless:

EIGHTY-NINE DAYS AFTER HE WAS DEPORTED from the Los Angeles County jail system to Tijuana, mentally troubled U.S. citizen Pedro Guzman returned to his home in Lancaster this week, shivering, stuttering and re-igniting a host of uncomfortable questions for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Guzman appeared at the U.S. border crossing at Calexico late Sunday night, where he was detained on a probation warrant. He was moved to the downtown L.A. jail, and then to the Lancaster jail. There, Superior Court Judge Carlos Chung ordered him released on August 7. That Tuesday afternoon, Pedro Guzman was finally resting at his brother Juan Carlos Chabes’ home on a flat stretch of the Antelope Valley while his mother, Maria Carbajal, and brother Michael Guzman faced a frenetic band of news reporters at the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in the Belmont area near downtown.


"This government deported Pedro Guzman because of his skin color, did not examine or review his documents stating that he was born in California because of his skin color, did not bother to comfort this family when he was found because of his skin color," Rosenbaum said.

The frenzy brought Carbajal and Michael Guzman to bitter tears. They told reporters they’ve spoken only briefly with Pedro because he returned to them in what sounded like a state of shock: trembling, fearful of people, stuttering and unable to communicate in English, one of his two languages.

"He left complete, but they took half of my son," Carbajal wept, referring to Pedro’s fragile state. "That is the government’s fault. They are guilty."

Guzman, 29, had been missing since May 11, the day he called his sister-in-law from a strange phone number. He told her he had been deported, was at the border, and was "confused." "I don’t know why I’m here," he said. The line went dead and Guzman was not heard from again.


Frantic after Pedro’s strange call, Carbajal took a leave from her job as a night-shift cook at a Lancaster Jack in the Box to search for Pedro herself. For weeks she ventured into the teeming back streets of downtown Tijuana in hopes of finding him. She went to Tecate and Rosarito, to jails, morgues, hospitals and halfway houses, and down into the dank ditches of the Tijuana River, a saga recorded by the L.A. Weekly in “Lost in Tijuana” (July 20-26).

After almost two months of living in a windowless shack at a banana distribution plant run by friends from her home state of Nayarit, Carbajal felt she needed to return to Lancaster to take care of the rest of her family and get back to the Jack in the Box where she works alongside her son Michael. She returned to Tijuana only on weekends, often accompanied by her son Juan Carlos and daughter-in-law Vicky. On July 7, his brother Michael was wed at the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas, without a best man. Pedro would have been at his side, and because of budget constraints, Michael could not postpone the celebration.

Last Thursday, August 2, Carbajal returned to Tijuana for what by now had become a routine weekend of searching. She told the Weekly she tried to come home on Sunday but found the traffic at the San Ysidro crossing too thick. She tried again on Monday, August 6, and that’s when she received a call from the ACLU saying that Pedro had been found. (The organization was representing the Guzmans in a lawsuit against ICE and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.)

How did we allow ourselves to get to this point? How did we become so afraid of a phantom menace, a crisis that exists only in the spittle-flecked rantings of demagogues, that something like this could happen? And why isn't this the lead on all of the news programs? Doesn't it have more to say about where we're at as a nation than Britney Spears', Paris Hilton's or Lindsey Lohan's latest outrage.

It's easy to blame the demagogues. Lou Dobbs, Michelle Malkin, Michael Savage, Tom Tancredo, and their ilk are indeed raising the level of hate in this country. We could cite many examples of how the media promotes the notion that brown people are not "real citizens." But the blame extends beyond them.

How many of you believe that immigration poses a major threat to this country? Have you really thought about it?

How many of you have stood by silently when a friend or a colleague speaks of Mexicans or Americans of Mexican descent in a way that suggests they're our enemy. Why didn't you say something?

How many times have you heard someone tell a derogatory joke and politely laughed? Why didn't you point out that it's offensive?

How many of you laughed at the greasy taco joke in the Simpsons Movie and then felt immediate shame as the people of Mexican descent seated around you groaned in disgust. I did. It may seem like a trivial thing to many of us, but it wasn't trivial to the people in that theater. It was just another indignity heaped upon them, another reminder that "we" don't think "they" are included in "us." And it works the other way as well. In our minds, another box labeled "brown=other" is checked whether we realize it or not.

Sure, we need to expose the Tancredos, Malkins, and Dobbses of the word for what they are, but we also need to think about the thousands of tiny indignities that occur every day and seek to end any contribution we might be adding to the problem. These thousands of tiny daily indignities, when added together, are just as poisonous to our culture as a Tancredo tirade.

We have to end it.

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