National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

-- Illustration by Jim Meehan
Mystery on the night train

Pacific News Service

Reading the papers with their powerful images of the war in Iraq these days, I had almost forgotten about the frightening developments now taking place in this country in the name of “homeland security.” But this morning my eyes fell on an item: “Terrorism Task Force Detains American Without Charges.” Then the experience I had on the train came back to me.

I was a passenger on an Amtrak train from the windy city of Chicago to the Big Apple -- New York City. It happened in late January, but it is a picture I’ll probably have with me for years. We had departed from Union Station in the late evening with snow falling in darkness. There was nothing to see out the windows, so I let the rocking of the train sway me to sleep with the hum of the tracks -- my lullaby.

Curled up in an awkward ball, using the empty seat next to me, I slept in the coach class section until I was jolted awake. The train had stopped. It was dark and something seemed to be happening. I peered down the aisle and saw two men in INS Border Patrol uniforms. They were shining a flashlight in the faces of passengers in the first few rows of the car and asking them questions in loud, aggressive voices. I felt a little of their fear or maybe felt my own.

Having just recently worked in an immigration law office, I thought I should pay close attention to what the Border Patrol was doing on this train. To my knowledge, we were not near a border, for only later that morning did we pass through Buffalo, N.Y., near the Canadian border. As the officers made their way down the aisle, the other passengers began to stir and awaken. A few seats in front of me were two men wearing large turbans and long white beards. The heightened tensions of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States after Sept. 11, especially with the implementation of special registration for those of Middle Eastern origin, made me particularly concerned with these two men. At the same time, I noticed the INS officers questioning a Latino family, not even giving them time to answer before asking them another question seeping with suspicion of their legality in the United States.

This family seemed not to understand what the officers were asking and began looking through their belongings. I think I overheard one of the officers asking them if they were legal.

Soon the officers approached the two men in turbans and their voices became louder, harsher, as they fired more questions at them than they had to anyone else within my earshot. I started getting nervous, as though I myself had something to hide. After some time they searched some documents that the men in turbans had produced and moved on to a Chinese family beside me.

“Where are you going? Where are you from?” one of them barked. The response was only a startled look. These passengers seemed not to understand English. At this point, I noticed the Latino family down the aisle frantically fumbling with their belongings.

I was getting ready to get my ID out, but when my turn came all that the officers asked me was where I was born.

“San Francisco,” I said.

Just like that, they moved on to the next person. They didn’t ask for my ID or fire any questions at me, and I knew that my white skin was my ticket to credibility.

Not long after, the Asian and Latino families were hurried off the train. Why? The rest of the passengers in the car just looked startled and confused. The train began to move and after a while the colors of dawn started breaking through. The early morning light shone on the empty seats where the two families had sat. Their belongings remained in the seats they had occupied, waiting for their return. As the train chugged on, making several stops, I kept thinking that the owners of the bags in the empty seats would come back to claim their belongings.

New people boarded and walked past the seats, assuming that they were filled. No one ever returned to them. Across the state of New York the train echoed with people asking what had happened to those taken off the train during the night. Nothing could put us at ease, not an Amtrak worker I overheard telling a fellow passenger that what he had seen was nothing out of the ordinary, and not those who met us at the train stations when we arrived, to whom we told what had happened.

Our own arrivals at our destinations reminded us that there are people at certain train platforms who will be wondering why the people they were supposed to meet never arrived.

I’m back home now, considering my country’s future and my own. As a 23-year-old white woman born in the United States, I may be safe -- for now. But as I read about assaults on our civil liberties now permitted under the Patriot Act, and as I remember my fellow passengers on that train, removed at night, able to take nothing with them, I don’t feel safe anymore.

Antonia Gustaitis is a 2002 graduate of Antioch College.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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