photos: Image by Transportation Not Deportation.

The unbearable whiteness of basic transportation

Notes on racial profiling from a targeted traveller at YVR.

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I probably fly to the United States at least four times a year, usually by myself. Being Mexican, I’m used to having my passport scrutinized, and I tend to expect that I’ll have to pull out my American and Canadian visas at every checkpoint. But earlier this spring, I travelled for the first time with my blonde-haired, fair-skinned, green-eyed Canadian girlfriend. And this was definitely her first time traveling with a person holding a third-world passport.

The morning of our flight from Vancouver to San Francisco—which featured a layover in L.A.—I probably seemed a little anxious, even though we were going on vacation. I had asked if we could head to the airport much earlier than what my girlfriend was accustomed to when she travels to the States.

While she’s used to arriving with just the right amount of time (not just at the airport), I try to arrive earlier just in case I encounter any issues while going through immigration unless I’m traveling to a country that does not require me to havea visa. I waited for her in a taxi while she finished gathering all of her things, double checking that I had all of my documents.

Travelling has always been somewhat stressful for me. When I was a kid, I lived in Florida for a few years. My dad was working for a software company andwe lived in the suburbs about an hour outside of Miami. My mom was homesick, so we flew to Mexico every time my brother and I had time off from school.I remember flying back into the States and having to deal with rude immigration officials. They would ask me why I lived in Florida, why I still had a Mexican passport, why my English was so good.

Sitting in that taxi, I suddenly realized I was nervous. Technically I didn’t have a reason to be: I had valid visas for both Canada and the U.S. but I knew that hadn’t stopped airport workers and immigration officers from being rude. This is not to say that I have never hada pleasant travel experience flying into the States—I would say that it’s usually pretty uneventful four out of five times. But today was not one of those days.

People of colour, open your passports

My relationship with my girlfriend is still somewhat new, and this was our very first time going on a mini vacation together. Our day of travelling for what was destined to be a romantic, spur-of-the-moment getaway started off with the incredibly magical moment when the airline worker scrutinized my entire passport. He. Read. Every. Single. Page. I was attempting to be cool and do a check-in (which I hadn’t been allowed to do online because I had a Mexican passport). He even called someone to ask about something in my passport that he refused to disclose with me. Eventually, after much discussion, he let me complete my check-in.

Has anyone else noticed that it’s become more common for airline workers todo the same job immigration officials are required to do? It just seems a little unnecessary considering our next stop was the U.S. Customs area that everyone at the Vancouver airport must go through for all flights destined for the States. Spoiler alert: my visa and passportwere scrutinized thoroughly again.

“Oh, now I understand why you wanted to be at the airport three hours before our flight,” my girlfriend said once I caught up with her on the other side of the customs area. I wasn’t sure how long she was waiting for me. She lied and told me it was just a minute or two. Once we made it to LAX, we were required to go through airport security again. This time I had the delightful experience of being pulled aside and having my shoes checked for explosives in an expensive-looking machine. Meanwhile, my girlfriend was getting compliments for her necklace from the security personnel.

We laughed it off, even though she was clearly surprised. What was an eye-opening experience for her was just another day at the airport for me.

But while I’ve come to accept that this is a part of air travel, many migrants and people of colour are faced with this treatment on our city’s streets on a daily basis, most commonly on the SkyTrain.

Nearly one bus rider a day handed to the CBSA

A couple of weeks before my trip, I was sitting at a news conference organizedby a group called Transportation Not Deportation. The group had been meeting with Metro Vancouver Transit Police representatives. That Friday, February 20, transit police announced the termination of its memorandum of understanding with the CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency). It was a controversial partnership that required transit police officers to enforce federal immigration laws on our city’s public transit.

The recent decision was the result of a long campaign endorsed by over 40 groups. The efforts to change Translink’s policy were catalyzed by the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez.

Like many undocumented and low-income workers, Jimenez had to take the SkyTrain to work every day. It was during one of these trips that she was stopped by transit police and asked for proof of payment. After she failed to provide it, transit police detained her and contacted the CBSA. She was later turned over to the CBSA even though there was no warrant out for her arrest.

Jiminez, an undocumented Mexican migrant, was already living a vulnerable life before she was stopped on the SkyTrain. Almost three weeks after she was imprisoned, the CBSA moved her to a detention centre at Vancouver International Airport where she hung herself on December 20, 2013. She died from her injuries eight days later.

In the months after Jiminez took her own life, community members started approaching the media about the strange circumstances surrounding her death and the role transit police had played. It became apparent that officers were purposely targeting passengers that CBSA might be interested in.

In 2013, the year Jiminez died, transit police handed over 328 people to CBSA, according to The Tyee. That’s nearly a person a day. According to a more recent February 2015 article in Rabble, only 1.5 per cent of the referrals done by transit police ended up comingback with warrants. That means the overwhelming majority of those detained were not actively sought out by CBSA.

Additionally, one in five of those referred to the CBSA faced a subsequent immigration investigation. According to a Transportation Not Deportation press release, that “suggests that the other four were simply racially profiled.”

To make matters worse, the transit police officer who detained Jiminez testified during the Coroner’s inquest into her death that he approached her because her accent made her seem like she “wasn’t originally from Canada.”

But the fact of a person not originally being from Canada shouldn’t raise alarm bells. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, one out of five people in Canada's population is foreign-born. Visible minorities account for 27 per cent of British Columbia’s population—one million of them call Metro Vancouver home.

Testimonies of discrimination, fear

During the press conference held by Transportation Not Deportation in late February, I wasn’t surprised to notice that older white men—except for two women and one man of colour—made up the entire Metro Vancouver Transit Police board.

Some of the testimonies offered by the speakers spoke of discrimination, fear to access public services (including transit) and an overall fear of transit police. All of those are situations the board is unlikely to have ever experienced. Several representatives spoke about the impacts such policies have on vulnerable populations, especially undocumented immigrants.

Harsha Walia, who has been working with the migrant community for over 15 years, summed it up at the press conference:

“Migrants without permit or legal status are some of the most vulnerable members of our community. They're often vilified in the media, but migrant workers and non- status people are the ones taking care of our children, growing our food, serving us food, building our homes,” Walia told reporters.

“Refugees are fleeing war, persecution and unimaginable and horrendous levels of violence. Often escaping para-militaries and arriving here seeking some level of safety only to question whether they can ride transit safely just to get to and from work like Lucia [Jiminez] was doing, to get to doctor's appointments, to pick up groceries, to pick up their kids from school.”

You wouldn’t know if it didn’t happen to you

With a transit referendum in the works, it’s imperative that we hear more racialized voices of transit users in public conversation. In an article published in Megaphone in March, executive director Sean Condon noted that transit poverty is on the rise. Transport options are not getting better for immigrant and otherwise vulnerable populations.

It’s bad enough that many can’t afford to pay for transit. It’s even worse that some are afraid to take transit because they might be pulled aside and questioned because of their accent.

There’s still hope, though. Some of the board member’s reactions at the press conference hinted at one fact: that certain things are hard to understand if you’ve never experienced them. Someone who relies solely on their car, for example, won’t understand why public transit needs improvement. Someone who’s never faced financial hardship won’t understand how someone who barely makes enough money for rent can’t always afford to pay for a SkyTrain ticket. But listening to peoples’s experiences must have worked: since Jiminez’s death, the extent of cooperation between transit police and the CBSA changed.

I can’t claim to understand what was going through Jimenez’s mind the night she was detained by transit police. ButI know how terrifying it can be to go through a border checkpoint, and I know how hard it can be to understand this if you’ve always breezed through security and border checkpoints because of the colour of your passport or the colour of your skin.

Our flight back to Vancouver from San Francisco was pretty uneventful. Besides almost missing our flight because the local rapid transit train service was delayed due to a police hunt, we didn’t encounter any other problems. We had a great trip and neither of us was looking forward to working the next day, but we still made a run for it and were probably the last two people to get on the plane.

I was happy to see that underneath all the jokes we made, my girlfriend got some insight into what it’s like to travel as a person of colour with a Latin American passport. Prior to our trip she had no idea, and no one can blame her for that.

But I still made sure to say “well, now you know".


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