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The Field: An Immigrant Surveils the State

by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

The Field: An Immigrant Surveils the State

Ingrid Rojas Contreras
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I spot the T-shirt one sunny day at a thrift store in San Francisco, pluck it from the rack, and hold it up to examine it. It’s a green, discolored military shirt. It is so worn that someone’s upper body has been stained into the cotton—like the Shroud of Turin. I am haunted by the circular patch that has been industrially sewn onto the breast: US Border Patrol, it says. Each letter, along with the silhouette of the continental US, has been embroidered in brown. I walk straight to the register, T-shirt in hand. I pay $2.98.

For weeks I don’t know what to do with the shirt. My artist friends want me to wear it. They want me to submerge myself in what we both imagine lives in the shirt—militancy, the desire to protect the purity of a place, an officious fear of the unknown. My artist friends believe that a metamorphosis can take place, that what the shirt represents—a desire for a white, Christian country—can mutate into something else if flaunted by an immigrant. But I cannot bring myself even to touch the shirt, let alone put it over my head.

I keep the shirt hidden in my closet, nestled inside a transparent plastic bin on the top shelf. I’ve folded the shirt meticulously; it sits in the cloudy plastic day after day, unchanged. I begin to think of the shirt as a specimen. Soon my imagination goes into overdrive and I begin to imagine the torso that once wore the shirt. Before breakfast, I see in my mind’s eye the mole-dotted flesh of the expanded pectorals. I see the single vein pulsing in the wide neck, the wide, meaty shoulders.

I carry so much violence in me. During the sixteen years that I’ve been a US immigrant, I have been prodded, harassed, investigated, and cataloged by the government so many times that I know exactly how the collection of evidence should proceed. I put on blue dishwashing gloves. I bring down the plastic bin. I enjoy the feeling of tossing the husk left behind by a Border Patrol officer to and fro. The lid unlocks with a pleasant, clean pop. I take the shirt out and resist the impulse to wear a dust mask. Instead, I bring the shirt to my nose. It doesn’t smell like anything, not even soap.

I’ve set up a workstation at my dining table—a computer, a scanner, a microscope—and now I am ready to begin. I lay the shirt on the glass bed of the scanner and submit it to the flare of fluorescent light. I am reviewing the shirt for evidence—physical, psychic, or other—of what is being done at the border and of what kind of person feels called to guard an imaginary line and commit violence in the name of it. As I create rows and rows of visual data, shifting the shirt up and down, left to right, I think of the countless times my fingers have been held against glass. When I go through immigration control at the airport, I have to hold four fingers against lighted glass, then each finger, one at a time. Twice I’ve had to speak into the blinking red eye of a camera and state my name. Once, I had to sign a form attesting to the fact that the words that had been recorded were true. I have the privilege of documentation, so the immigration officials I encounter do not wear shirts like the one I found. They wear buttoned-up uniforms with white T-shirts underneath. I never see their hands. They are always encased in powder blue or pearl-colored plastic gloves.

The data from the shirt captures a story of activity and sweat. I look at the changing gradient of olive green and mottled gray. It is a map of where the material was tight and loose on the body that wore it.

Computers have their own language for cataloging color. Hexadecimal color codes are six digits long, with each number-pair signaling the level of red, green, and blue in a hue. I hypothesize that #928878, the most faded gray I can find, is where the fabric was exposed to sun and sweat: ultraviolet rays, sodium chloride, urea, ammonia, and lactic acid breaking down bonds in the cotton and blanching the fabric. The most vivid green I can find, #535344, must be close to the original color. I believe that #535344 constitutes the parts that were hidden from the sun. There is a line of #535344 that cuts across the midriff. At first I think it is a pattern cast by a large stomach, the top curve of which could have forced some fabric to tuck in and wrinkle. But then I see two lines of #535344 traveling down the shoulder to the chest, past the armpit. The lines now look as if they came from a backpack, or maybe a CamelBak, the kind of plastic sack you fill with water that has a little tube you can suck on to drink.

Most immigration officials I meet show hardly any interest in me. At biometrics sessions, for which I am summoned by the state from time to time, the officials are rough, and without addressing me they motion for me to follow as they lead me to back rooms. The purpose of a biometrics session is to update the log of identifiable data used to distinguish individuals who belong to groups under surveillance.

Officials shift, pose, move my body wordlessly until I stand before the black eye of their camera, just as they want. They photograph me unsmiling, so that my facial features can be more accurately recorded. They place me in front of fingerprint-scanning machines, and contort my hand into the position they need.

The immigration officers never look up at me, never see that I am scrutinizing them too. I wish they would. I resist the urge to roll my eyes, to say, I’m pretty sure you have all this information by now. But I know it is less about updating an archive and more about the spectacle of the catalog. And I do find the spectacle of the catalog intimidating. I would be lying if I said I didn’t.

When I leave their purview, I close my eyes and feel my anger for one red-hot moment, then I let it sink until it’s repressed. I wonder how long my information will be kept in the catalog—whether it will all be trashed when I expire. At home, I unwind in the most efficient way I know. I look at minerals and crystals through a rock microscope. I pour myself wine and zoom in until I get lost in their refracted, neon, kaleidoscope-like landscape. If I zoom in enough, it can feel as if I am floating above an alien planet.

Is it violent to look too closely at a thing? If it is, it feels too good to stop. I pull the shirt away from the scanner and read the tag: Duke Athletics Border Patrol. I look up the manufacturer online, choosing to go first with an image search.

“Duke Athletics Border Patrol” (filtering out images tagged “university,” “college,” and “sports”) brings up many images of men before podiums at press conferences, lit at the golden hour, training M4s at a barbed wire horizon. They seem to be wearing the same shirt I found underneath the green military collars of their uniforms. But I want conclusive evidence. Finally, in the backlog of web pages, I find training videos in which the videographer circles a group of men tackling one another onto a mat. I think the video doesn’t have sound, but eventually I realize that the men make no sound as they wrestle one another. The only noise in the video is the squeak of the mat and the shuffling of muscle against muscle. I picture the children, men, and women they are training for, and whom they will actually tackle one day with such force. The men in the video are wearing vests padded with ballistic plates. I pause the video and go back to my search of the supplier websites. I poke around until I find ballistic plates that are similar in look and build to the ones in the video.

Duke Athletics doesn’t make the plates. They are sold by other companies, with names like Street Fighter, Road Block, and Drakkarthis last in reference to the 1983 Beirut terrorist bombing of two buildings housing French and American paratroopers.

As I zoom in on the images of the vest, I realize that it would have made exactly the same pattern as the one engraved on the Border Patrol shirt I found.

Next, I put the Border Patrol shirt under my rock microscope. I press my eye sockets against the rubber of the lenses and look at the magnified fabric. I pore over its enlarged V-shaped columns, the individual threads of the knit that have trapped some of my cat’s hair, my hair, and hairs unknown. When you zoom in this close, space begins to feel endless. I shift the shirt around for many hours, gazing at the vast oceans of green that imperceptibly turn into vast oceans of gray. I look at the patch. I can see the places, hardly visible to the naked eye, where the weave is fraying. It looks like jute rope up close, with single threads breaking formation and hanging loose.

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that besides the mountain of paperwork and the affidavits from family members and friends that were required before I could qualify for a green card, my body needed to be verified for admissibility too.

The medical examination had to be conducted by a designated United States Citizenship and Immigration Services civil surgeon, but I arrived at a decrepit-looking clinic, where I waited in an underground room with peeling paint. My doctor was a stout woman with black hair, wearing a white lab coat. In her office, which had no windows and a closed door, she looked into my ears with her otoscope, took my blood pressure, shone a flashlight in my eyes, hit my knee with a hammer. I was wondering what these harmless measurements would add to my file, when the doctor prepared to withdraw blood. I hid my arm instinctively, but the doctor told me that if I refused, my application would be denied. I watched the little tube fill with blood. She tested me for tuberculosis, gave me a chest X-ray, then asked me to strip to my underwear.

The doctor said that nobody was forcing me to apply for a readjustment of status; I could walk away at any time. She did not turn away as I stepped out of my jeans. I pulled my shirt over my head and she ogled me with breathless focus, her eyes sweeping down over my breasts, my stomach, my pelvis, and up again. The woman clasped her hands at her back and inspected all my blemishes, bruises, moles. She came so close, I could feel her breath on my skin. Suddenly, the woman straightened and rose onto tiptoes. She dug her pen into my scalp. I had nowhere to look but at her lab coat. Her stomach pushed against each button. “How come I had to strip, if you drew my blood and took an X-ray?”

She murmured: “There are things we can’t tell from looking at your blood.” She made a disgruntled noise. “You have dandruff.” She sat at her desk and made notes in my file. I got dressed and left in a hurry.

Outside on the street, I cried and dialed my sister. When she picked up, I told her I’d been sexually harassed. My sister was studying law, and without missing a beat she said, “Don’t worry—we’ll sue. Who did it? What happened? I’m recording this.”

We were so sure that what had happened to me was illegal, but when she looked, none of what the doctor had done was outside of the law. She had followed the Technical Instructions for the Medical Examination of Aliens, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the examination wasn’t as bad as it could have been. According to the Technical Instructions, the doctor could have gone one step further and asked me to drop my underwear and proceeded to examine my “external genitalia.”

It’s on the tag of the shirt that I find what I’m looking for: a smear of red that looks like dried blood. My first thought is that it’s an immigrant’s blood. I am disconsolate—I don’t want the government to take any more of our blood. But it can’t be. I widen my eyes as I realize that the tag would have rested against the wearer’s nape.

It’s Border Patrol officer blood.

I nestle in and adjust the lens, zooming in on the red mark, trying to ascertain if this speck of government blood was collected via mosquito bite, scratch, or pimple. I think the doctor was wrong to say that you can’t tell everything by looking at blood, as I foray into the intimacy of the copper-red valley of this sample, its canyons of striated marks, which I feel I can read like lifelines. After I autopsy the shirt, this speck of blood is what finally gives me the opportunity to reciprocate the trespass I have so often experienced, to penetrate further, where I don’t belong, into the secret textures of bodies.

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