Authors: José Orduña
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 counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. In 2004, Accenture, an offshore “global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company,” became the well-paid brain behind US-VISIT, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. According to the DHS website,
US-VISIT systems provide identity verification and analysis services and data-sharing 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 record-breaking deportation figures year after year.
The juridical presence in the walls.
Ariel is walking next to me into the mostly empty office. Every time she smiles at me I feel obligated to smile back, which is a good distraction from what it is I'm actually feeling. She insists I take notes in one of my pocket notebooks.
“So you'll remember.”
I tell her this is something I am sure to never forget.
She makes a note-taking gesture, so I reach into the inside pocket of my trench coat and open to a blank page. I scatter mostly unusable observations in no particular order.
Two days before my appointment I ran into my Minnesota friend, Robert Plantenberg.
“That,” he pointed at my upper lip, “is a moustache of some consequence.”
He's white, six foot one, and has an innocuous build. He wears glasses. He has male pattern baldness I can only describe as handsome, and a robust brown beard that's perfectly symmetrical. He is wearing what he calls his Bob suit, a suit I've come to understand grants him authority or invisibility, depending on what's necessary at the time, and gives him access to all kinds of things that are off limits to others. It allows him the luxury of walking around unencumbered by others' perceptions of him and leaves him free of having to calculate what those might be in order to sustain his very life. His exterior is one of the templates for what we think of as an American. Bob is astute, so he's perfectly aware
that his Bob suit gives him power, which is why I think he always offers to drive whenever we hang out. Over the course of our relationship he's relayed a few stories about times when he calmly talked his way out of hairy situations that I'm sure would have turned out very differently for me.
Bob and I also frequent a taco place where I recently pointed out something that I noticed a while back: when I wear a mustache, paisas will greet me in Spanish, but when I have a full beard or am cleanly shaven they usually wait for me to say something first or they'll begin in English. I first observed this in high school, during summer breaks, when I started making forays into growing facial hair. Besides the different greetings I'd receive from other Latin Americans, I noticed white girls paid less attention to me. In stores, it seemed white people would ask me where things were more frequently, and when I told them I wasn't an employee they'd either look very surprised, somewhat amused, or intensely embarrassed. The strangest thing, though, was some white people seemed to lose the ability to see me at all, as though I held no physical space in a room, as though I had no materiality with which to displace air or cast shadows.
“Bob, do you think I should shave this moustache before my appointment?”
Ariel is not supposed to be here, according to my valentine. “WARNING! Due to limited seating availability in our lobby areas, only persons who are necessary to assist with transportation or completing the fingerprint worksheet should accompany you.” I look up from my notebook and there are two women who might be African sitting a few seats away, next to each other. I don't think they're here together because one is wearing a solid purple head wrap that's tightly twisted around her head, while the other woman's is
shiny and voluminous, and looks like a
. The room we're in looks like it could fit hundreds comfortably, but there are only five people in here including Ariel. One of the women smiles warmly at me, and nods her head, which I take to mean she's happy for meâhappy I've made it here to this roomâbecause she knows the value of the papers dispensed through this office. But it feels Faustian to voluntarily become an “American” in this historical moment, and it feels funny to be relieved about no longer being deportable by the same state that can still easily kill me “legally” and with absolute impunity.
I feel stuck in the eternal return of the circumstances into which I was born. The arbitrariness of where I came into being is reified by and as institutions, which themselves are in the process of becoming more immaterial, more abstract through secrecy and the yet unknowable consequences of emerging technology. The Department of Homeland Security works with countless private partners with little oversight. They have numbers they'd like to meet, and the details are left to the subcontractors. Iris scans, enhanced facial recognition tracking, full hand geometry. But who exactly will have access to the biometric data of hundreds of millions of people, now and in the future? How did something like IDENT come online without even the semblance of informed consent?
The operational paradigm is broad interoperability, which means the free exchange of information and services between diverse government systems. It means fusion centers within local police precincts that aggregate mass amounts of data from a variety of public- and private-sector sources operating under the auspices of national security. In 2008 the Los Angeles Police Department began monitoring individuals' everyday activities. They came up with a list of sixty-five behaviors, including using binoculars, attempting to take measurements, taking pictures or video footage “with
no apparent aesthetic value,” drawing diagrams, abandoning a vehicle, taking notes, and espousing extremist views, which “could indicate activity or intentions related to either foreign or domestic terrorism.” They were able to do this because the Department of Justice did away with federal regulations that governed criminal intelligence databases and expanded what kinds of information can be collected by local law enforcement and with whom it can be shared. This Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) program has since gone nationwide, which means that in addition to the mass information-gathering and surveillance that happens online, information about noncriminal activity is also being gathered offline in cities and towns all over the United States. A robust and steady stream of this information constantly flows into federal intelligence databases. The mission is to record, upload, and be able to extract exploitable meaning from everything; to fully capitalize on our cultural tendency and technological ability to force everything that will ever be thought through a recordable medium; to fill every crevice with a camera's gaze, an accessible microphone; to comprehensively map human relations in real time; to make predictions that allow more comprehensive, broader management over life; and to make all of this available to a chosen operator from a single searchable database accessible from any laptop or mobile device.
I look down and notice I haven't filled out the form sitting in my lap. It asks for my alien number so I retrieve my green card. The letter “A” followed by nine digits. Tolstoy wrote in his private diaries that there are proper names, real names, names of things, animals and people, which evoke the way of life better than a description of the thing itself. The alien number constitutes one of my names in the system, lets the analyst know what my restrictions in movement and labor are, what my ports of entry and exit have been, and may be connected to what kind of trouble I've been getting into, if any. In the system, I am a collection of
linked information filed under the category of Alien. When these points of data become aggregated and disseminated among systems that determine humans' lives, they allow for the expulsion and management of populations along lines of demarcation forged and maintained through violence. They allow for laws that inscribe themselves preemptively on the bodies and souls of people, laws that can act upon them from a great distance always exerting pressures that never let up. They allow for the displacement and expulsion of millions of individuals who are all members of families and communities. In many paradigms of social justice, people fight to be seen, named, and recognized, but in light of these systems of mass surveillance it seems we need to reclaim anonymity, unrecognizability, the right to be left alone.
I have no idea where
am in this relation between the signifier and the signified.
It feels like I'm betraying myself when I write the number on the line. I do it in bad faith.
This is my official identification, composed of narrow points of data that are reassembled in permutations to serve others' purposes. These identities refer to me, a reference that others own. These official permutations become my virtual selves, selves that have so little to do with me and yet contain information essential to my lived experience, selves that become unrecognizable to meâversions alleged to be me trapped to endlessly drag themselves along a razor's edge of perpetually self-replicating virtual borders. They signal
I am because these systems can't collect
It feels like a sick love affair: a faceless power needing to know my every move, utterance, thought, and behavior even though there's no reason for me to be under observation or suspicion. It seems my valentine finds me threatening, which reveals more about my valentine than it does about me.
I hand in the form, and a portly woman with a stern face comes around the corner. She provides an obligatory smile.
She positions me in front of a white backdrop and raises a digital camera in front of my face.
We walk to what looks like a copy machine except it's bigger than I am. The woman speaks warmly to me. She puts on a pair of latex gloves, takes my hand, and puts each of my digits on a clear glass grid individually, then together, and then it's over. She hands me an alcohol wipe and tells me I'll be receiving another notice as soon as the FBI clears me.
Ariel: “That's it?”
I look at my watch. “Tasty Tacos?”
My friend Chelsea, a native of Des Moines, made me promise that after the capturing of my biometric data, Ariel and I would eat at Tasty Tacos. She smiled facetiously, displaying her prominent incisors when I agreed.
“Starting with virtually nothing, we have taken a family recipe and given people across the country an opportunity to sample our one-of-a-kind flour taco.” In 1961, the Mosqueda family didn't imagine they'd own five profitable “fast serve restaurants.” Ariel and I can't stop smiling at this mongrel food establishment: Formica diner booths and tables; an old-school slide-lettering menu above the cash register that's faded yellow and spattered with some kind of dried red sauce; a fat, mustachioed man with a long, braided ponytail; a group of three construction workersâone black, one white, one brownâall wearing tan Carhartt jackets. A family of threeâa morbidly obese white woman whose lower stomach is dangerously wedged under the table, her racially ambiguous partner, and their even more racially ambiguous child who's going to town on two corn dogs.
I look at my red tray, with one hard-shell chicken tacoâchicken that feels, between my teeth, to have been boiledâone
shriveled corn dog that tastes thawed from a long deep freeze, and one small cola in a disposable cup with the restaurant's logo: a young Mexican boy wearing a sombrero with a sarape slung over his left shoulder, his hands extended, in the small reverie of being a man. He exclaims, “Nada Es Imposible!”