As the nation takes note of a more aggressive immigration posture, add one more incident to the litany of stories in which officials seem to have crossed the line. El Pasoan Sylvia Acosta and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Sybonae Castillo—both U.S. citizens—were wrapping up a dream European tour on Sunday as they passed through customs at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport on their way home. There, Acosta said, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer challenged the fact that mother and daughter did not share the same last name. When Acosta, who holds a doctorate degree, explained that she chose to keep her professional name when she married, the agent told Acosta she should have taken her husband’s last name to prove her maternity. Acosta, who heads the nation’s largest YWCA branch in El Paso, was furious. She shared her experience in a Facebook post after the incident and it quickly went viral. By 11:30 a.m. CST Monday, it had already been shared more than seven thousand times.
“I just experienced a Handmaidens Tale moment at the DFW airport by Customs and Border Protection. I was traveling back from Rome and stopped by US customs. I was asked if Sybonae was my daughter and I said yes. Then they asked why if she was my daughter I didn’t have the same last name. I told them I had already established my career and earned my doctorate with my last name Acosta so I had decided not to change it. That is why we had different names. Then the customs office said, well maybe you should have taken your husbands last names so you could prove you were her mom. I told him I had a lot of proof she was my daughter without having had his last name. He then took me to another room where they proceeded to interrogate me and my daughter to prove I was her parent. I had to reexplain why we didn’t share last names and again one said well maybe you should consider changing your name to reflect that you are her mother. I then proceeded to tell them that they were perpetuating an institutionalized misogynistic system which required that a woman take her husbands name and after that and a whole lot more about what I thought about what they had said to me that they let us go. I am furious.”
In an emailed statement 22 hours after first being asked about Acosta’s allegations, a CBP spokesperson denied anything improper had occurred. “U. S. Customs and Border Protection has reviewed the audio and video of the encounter between a CBP officer and a woman traveling with her daughter, and found that the video does not support the claim as it has been reported. The audio and video prove that there weren’t any inappropriate questions discussed,” Another spokesperson emailed a short time later saying the statement was mistaken and sent another omitting the second sentence in the quote regarding inappropriate questions. When asked if the agency was disputing Acosta’s description of the event or saying that what she described was viewed as acceptable by CBP, the second spokesperson said they were disputing her version of events. The first spokesperson also linked to CBP guidance that says the agency “strongly recommends,” but doesn’t require, additional documentation when a child isn’t traveling with both parents guidance warns that parents traveling without extra documents can be detained while their relationship to the child is investigated.
Acosta called the CBP response “infuriating. I know what happened. My daughter knows what happened.” She said she plans to file a formal complaint against the CBP officer.
“I didn’t go to U.S. Customs and Border Protection today wanting to have a social justice moment. I just wanted to get home,” she said in an earlier telephone interview on Sunday after returning to El Paso and posting her experience.
Acosta became CEO of the El Paso YWCA in 2017 after an academic and nonprofit management career that included positions as assistant vice chancellor at the University of California-Irvine; associate vice president of the University of Texas at El Paso: assistant dean at New Mexico State University: and national vice president of external relations and chief operating officer for AVANCE, an early-childhood education program based in San Antonio. In her role as YWCA CEO, Acosta has been at the forefront of a number of social justice activities. Last month, she was one of the leaders of a protest in Tornillo, Texas, the site of a four hundred-bed tent city that’s housing children who were separated from their parents at the border or arrived without an adult.
Acosta and a friend had chaperoned a group of students who toured Europe for ten days with an organization called Education First Tours. She posted numerous pictures of her, her daughter, and others in the group on her Facebook page in recent days. One of the highlights of the journey was the celebration of her daughter’s fifteenth birthday. When they arrived at DFW around 1:30 p.m. Sunday after a ten-hour flight from Rome, they were exhausted. They approached the customs inspection together and handed a CBP officer their passports. She said she told the officer that Sybonae was her daughter. “Then he said, ‘So why don’t you have the same last name?’” she said, leading her to tell the story of her adult life to a stranger. “I started explaining myself. I was already in my career, then I went to get my doctorate, I just decided to keep my last name. You know, I was married and she’s my daughter from my first husband. So I went into this lengthy explanation about why we didn’t have the same last names. And then he said, ‘Well you know, it might have been a better idea if you had taken his name. Because then you could have proved that you were the mother of this child, of your daughter.’ And then it kind of hit me and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you probably should have taken his name.’”
She said the officer then told her she could have carried her divorce decree with her to establish her parenthood. Acosta pressed her case, saying there are multiple ways to prove she was Sybonae’s mother. “And he goes, ‘Well I don’t know if you’re trafficking her.’ And I said, are you serious? And he said yes. He goes, ‘You know, we have to make sure you’re not a human trafficker.’ And I said I’m here with my daughter, we just went on a tour.” Acosta said she has taken frequent international trips with Sybonae and has never before had their relationship questioned.
At this point, she said the officer began using an “I am more powerful than you” kind of tone. He told Acosta that she and Sybonae would be sent to a secondary inspection area. “And I said why are you sending me to the back? And then he goes, ‘Because I have full discretion to do whatever it is that I want to do.’” Acosta said she never thought to get his name, but described him as an African-American man. Acosta said she and her daughter were initially ignored when taken to the secondary inspection area. Frustrated, she pushed for answers from a man and a woman working in the area. “All of a sudden I find myself in a situation and I’m an American citizen. I’m an educated woman. And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, is this really happening?”
The ACLU says that customs and immigration officials have the authority to stop, detain, and search any person entering the country. U.S. citizens with a valid passport have the right to refuse to answer any questions, the ACLU said, but that can invite more scrutiny from customs officials, who can detain you longer.
After about twenty minutes, Acosta and her daughter were allowed to leave. She said she didn’t believe the secondary inspection officers did much additional work in checking her relationship to her daughter. “I think it was because I stood up and I said, you know, this is wrong, what you’re doing is wrong. I don’t think this is legal. I think that’s when they just pretty much said, just go.”
Acosta immediately turned her attention to Sybonae. “She wasn’t talking the entire time that she was there with me. She was just shocked. And then as soon as we stepped out of that room, she said, ‘Mom, I want to cry.’ She said, ‘Mom, I just want to cry.’ And I said, I’m so sorry, honey. But I said, you know what? It’s OK because you are the daughter and I’m the mother. And I said that it’s my job to be strong. And I said, if you want to cry, that’s OK.”
Acosta and her daughter finally returned home just after 8 p.m. MST Sunday. Sybonae was already tucked into bed but agreed to a brief interview about her experience. “It seemed like something so random. I was just confused. How could this be happening?” When asked what she thought of how her mother handled the situation, Sybonae said: “Well, as you know, she’s the CEO of the YWCA, and their mission statement is to eliminate racism and empower women. And I think that’s really what she did, because she really took a stand. And that’s what she does.”