I’m a criminal because of where I was born | Desirée Venn Frederic | TEDxMidAtlanticSalon

Translator: lisa thompson
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven My name is Desirée,
and I know we just met, but in 2013, you funded my immigration detention. In 2013, I learned, on a cold January day in a federal
courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, that I was an aggravated felon. Me! Look at me for God’s sake. I’m always in heels and clothes
that are quite impractical. How could I be an aggravated felon? I learned that day that my time here
in the United States of America, that the community that I was a part of, the community that nurtured me,
that informed my understanding of myself, the community that I so loved
and felt a part of, that that very community
now saw me as a threat – a threat to their very existence, a threat to their way of life. That’s a lot to swallow,
if that happens to you. That’s a lot to swallow,
when your entire life shifts, when ICE agents –
Immigration and Customs Enforcement – approach you, they pull out handcuffs, and they tell you that they are ordered
to take you into custody. It’s a lot to swallow
when you are processed and shackles are placed on your ankles. Mind you, on this
cold January day in 2013, I had a vintage wool jumpsuit on;
it was orange color. You know I had to come right.
We already know. It was an orange wool jumpsuit,
one of my favorites. It’s still hanging in in my closet today; however, I’ve never worn it
since that day. They told me to take off
my snakeskin pumps. They gave me sandals.
They told me to lift up my jumpsuit. They placed shackles on my ankles. It was in that very moment that I saw myself the way
that this government sees me. It was that very moment
that I realized that I was a criminal. Backstory: I was born
in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I am of Geechee and Maroon ancestry. I immigrated to the US at age seven. I had all intentions of becoming
a pediatric neurosurgeon because when you’re African,
that’s what you do. (Laughter)
You go into the medical field. On a merit scholarship, I was told
that I could no longer attend school, that I had to pay upwards of about
60,000 dollars within two weeks, or else I would have to drop out. My scholarship was revoked because I, at that time,
discovered that I was undocumented. You become undocumented
not on your own accord but policy changes, law changes. I was given TPS status because the country from which I came
underwent a 15-year civil war. In fact, two weeks prior
to my departure date, I entered the country on a visitor’s visa
to visit my parents, who were living here. My maternal grandparents
were caring for me in Sierra Leone. Two weeks prior to my departure,
the civil war started in Freetown. No mother and no father
would send their child into a war zone, so they kept me here. They started the naturalization process. I entered the third grade
in a Catholic school – we’ll talk about the harms of that later. (Laughter) I enter the third grade, and I was just like everyone else, or so I thought. I excelled academically because that’s what you do
when you’re African. And by the time I went into college, all of a sudden, this new identity,
this new understanding was thrown at me: that I did not belong. Not belonging does a lot of things to you. It does a lot of things to your psychology because when you see yourself
as one among many, when you see yourself
as a part of the fabric of this country – and in fact, a contributing
member of this country – I volunteered, I participated on
all the Little League teams, and actually, I don’t know why,
but I was Little League coach for a while. Right … Now, you see yourself
very much as part of this community, and when you’re told
that you’re something outside, that you are an outsider, and that you had to convince
everyone else of why you belonged, why you should be a part
of this human experience, why you deserved to participate, I found myself baffled
and at a loss for words. I was trying to convince
the government why I belonged. But I grew very quickly to understand – particularly during my detention. I was detained for a total of six months. The first two months,
I was kept in solitary confinement because I am a threat. I mean, look at me! I’m a threat, right? I was kept in solitary confinement, and during those days,
I remember asking myself: how could I love a country
that does not love me back? How could you be so foolish, girl? How could you want to be here? Why did you fight for seven years to correct this mistake that happened
as a child, that took place as a child? Why would you fight for those seven years to stay in a country
that would do this to you, that would treat you
worse than we treat our pets? Why do you want to be here? And as I struggled with the effects, the psychological effects
of solitary confinement – there are many. It’s a trauma. It’s a very deep trauma, and one that does not
simply go away when you’re released. As I struggled to negotiate
my own reasoning for being in this country
and for wanting to participate, I grew to understand
that it was the very people: people like you; people whose taxpayer dollars
were being used to detain people like me; people who, when I’m among
the community, I’m just like you; people with whom I can chat
about my love for ethnic fashion, my love for sushi, my love for faux –
faux is my new thing and ramen. People with whom I can relate,
people from whom I can learn. So, although unbeknownst to you, you were paying for my detention. Mind you, there’s a mandate that 34,000 immigrants
are to be detained each year. There’s an economic aspect of this. But unbeknownst to you,
your tax dollars are contributing to this. As we have dialogue around immigration, as we deal with this very real threat as
it relates to our current administration, I want you to keep in mind
the economic aspect of this, and why immigrants
have become the new market. See, when crime started to decline
in the early 21st century, immigrants became that new market. You can criminalize someone’s existence
for having been born somewhere, and you can arrest them, and you can put them in jail
for upwards of three years. No process. No court dates. No nothing.
They just sit there, forgotten. $180 was spent every single day
to keep me in detention in the state of Maryland. And it varies state to state. So as we have a conversation
about immigration detention, please keep in mind the very human effect
but also the economics of it. These institutions that detain people
like me are private businesses. They’re private corporations. And they are mandated to hold 34,000
people like me every single year. It is a quota. Is that how you want your money spent? I didn’t think so. I stand here today because it was the very idea that people like you want me among you, want me to contribute to this community,
and want what’s best for me. What kept me alive
during solitary confinement was the idea that I could return home,
and I could open a vintage shop. That shop manifested
and materialized into what is Nomad Yard. My love for vintage does not come
from my admiration of some mere fashion. It’s my value
for people and their stories. It’s my value for their histories. It’s my way of archiving the contributions
that people like you and I will make and those before us have made
to this human story. I ask you that as you read the papers
tomorrow morning about another immigrant, you remember people like me and that we are one human-kind. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. Such an inspiration to watch this beautiful lady. Your story moved me, most of all a great reminder that immigrant or no immigrant, we are People with our own lives that want the same as you! This should be enough motivation for all of us, we as a society need to wake up from this sick manipulation of our so called leaders.

  2. 'solitary confinement'!….Where's the justice in that?…I don't want to presume much but can I ask, in hind-sight, was there a way to avert this turn of events; parents/guardians exercising due diligence in seeking recourse over the years and filing the necessary paperwork? You're a delight, thanks for sharing, 'tis insightful.

  3. Your not a criminal because of where you were born- your are a criminal because you are here illegally thanks to your parents.

  4. Wow I was thinking the same thing about the prisons needing filling. Especially now that there are children and infants are filling “camps”. Which a lot of the time are privately owned prisons.

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