Sergio Salazar awoke around 8 a.m. on a strip of grass outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Antonio. It had been a heady summer for the 18-year-old. President Donald Trump, as part of his ongoing border crackdown, had separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. Viewing the policy as the latest in a string of assaults on immigrant communities, Salazar and his friends organized an occupation outside the ICE office in the midsummer heat.

In the weeks that followed, Occupy ICE SATX was visited by both TV crews and a raiding party of masked neo-Nazis, who stormed through the tiny but vocal protest camp chanting, “Strong borders! Strong nations!”

Known by his friends as mapache, Spanish for raccoon, Salazar was born in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, in 1999. His father brought him to Texas on a visa in 2003, and though the visa eventually ran out, Salazar was granted a reprieve from the threat of deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in 2016. He graduated from high school in 2018 in San Antonio, the only home he has ever known.

Salazar’s DACA protection had expired the day before, on August 2, 2018, but he wasn’t too worried as he stepped into the sun that morning; he had applied for renewal weeks earlier and he had a lawyer working on it. Everything would be fine, he thought. Salazar didn’t realize that by the time he woke up, his renewal request had been denied.

Ambling across the parking lot, Salazar noticed a truck approaching him from behind. Probably someone coming in for work, he assumed. The driver called him over. As the man got out of his vehicle, Salazar saw that he had a badge and a gun. A second vehicle pulled up. There were voices yelling.

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Occupy ICE protests sprung up around the country in 2018, including the San Antonio encampment, named Camp Cicada.

Photo: Courtesy of Occupy ICE San Antonio

Salazar remembers three phrases sticking out:

Your DACA’s expired.

You’re in this country illegally.

You’re under arrest.

He was taken behind an abandoned Walmart and stripped of his belongings. Only later would he learn that ICE officers had been monitoring him, online and in person, for weeks. Salazar was driven to a detention center some 60 miles southwest of San Antonio. From there, he was moved to a former federal prison, repurposed for immigration detention, along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Everything was painted white,” he remembers. “Everything was fluorescent bulbs.”

Salazar spent the next 43 days locked up, until eventually he relented, accepting deportation to a country he hadn’t seen since he was a toddler.

The U.S. deportation machine is constantly in motion. But the peculiar case of Sergio “Mapache” Salazar stands out for at least a couple of reasons.

For one, an FBI counterterrorism team played an important role in the case, though Salazar was never accused of or charged with a crime. Second, Salazar clearly made his way onto law enforcement’s radar through posts he made on Twitter, triggering a series of fast-moving events that led to his arrest and removal from the country, which together raise an urgent question: Did U.S. officials use deportation as a punishment for an angry 18-year-old’s political speech?

Sitting in a sparsely furnished apartment in Monterrey, Mexico, last winter, as he prepared for his first Christmas away from his parents, Salazar told The Intercept that there was no doubt in his mind that his deportation was politically motivated. Salazar sources his worldview from a confluence of factors, including anarchist philosophy, punk music, and being an undocumented Mexican teenager living in a border state in an era of hyper-militarization. “As someone who was undocumented,” he explained, “I wouldn’t just see, but I would feel this constant threat against me, a threat of violence from the so-called United States to be deported. I felt the violence of not being able to cross the border to visit where I’m from, to visit for holidays.”

“In my evidence packet, I am listed off as a member of antifa or anarchist extremist,” Salazar went on to say. “Those are words that are used to describe me.”

Salazar does not apologize for his politics. “I’m not ashamed to say that my beliefs are anarchist and I am an anti-fascist,” he said. At the same time, he explained, image matters when facing an immigration judge, and “the FBI and ICE, these two very bloated, fascist United States institutions, well, they did a very good job at making me look like a bad person.”

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Salazar checks his phone in the apartment complex where he now lives in Monterrey, Mexico, in December 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Never Tweet

Salazar’s troubles stemmed from a series of tweets that he acknowledges were ill-advised and over-the-top — though no justification for throwing him out of the country.

Beginning on March 24, 2018, through late June of that year, Salazar had tweeted, “lets set some shit on fire and throw molotovs at the pigs im so done with today”; “pick up the guns, put the pigs on the run” (a reference to an old Black Panther chant); “let’s hope tomorrow is the day we start we start burning cop cars, preferably with cops inside”; “dead cops are a good thing”; “this mornings mood is wanting to kill a homophobe”; and “I am not a member of MS-13! Im part of something much more dangerous we’ve got molotovs and we know who the real enemy is.”

Often he was arguing with right-wing accounts or responding to politicians: The Molotovs tweet, for instance, came in response to Iowa Rep. Steve King tweeting that young Latino boys were “prime MS-13 gang material.” Salazar now says he was venting, expressing his anger with how powerless he felt as a young undocumented person.

By the end of June, those tweets had caught the attention of a Texas Department of Public Safety intelligence analyst, who reported to the FBI that Twitter user “@babycrusty161” was posting threats to law enforcement. A Department of Homeland Security evidence packet on Salazar’s case, which Salazar shared with The Intercept, noted that “161” is “alphanumeric code” for “AFA” or “AntiFascist Action” — “commonly known as the Anarchist Extremist Group ‘ANTIFA.’”

“ANTIFA [is] a national Anarchist extremist confederation composed of autonomous groups that espouses direct action and openly advocates violence in furtherance of their anti-government and anti-law enforcement goals,” the packet read.

Within the FBI, Salazar’s tweets made their way to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a specialized team of law enforcement personnel from different agencies with the shared purpose of combatting terrorism. In San Antonio, the local JTTF included an ICE officer.

Based on the tweets and information Texas DPS had forwarded, the FBI opened an assessment — a sort of pre-investigation that requires no evidence of a crime to open and has little oversight. During an assessment, agents can conduct interviews, examine travel records, run names through intelligence databases, do some physical surveillance, and collect information from informants. As The Intercept has reported, there has long been controversy over the use of assessments, especially when it comes to opening them on activists. Civil liberties advocates see assessments as a way for agents to gather an astonishing amount of information about individuals who are not suspected of a crime. Assessments are also useful for subtly — or not so subtly — pressuring their subjects to become informants.

“Obviously, if the FBI wants you to do something, you do the opposite in self-preservation. I kept my mouth shut.”

In Salazar’s case, investigators zeroed in on their target in a few different ways. Though it had dutifully recorded his employment at a local Whataburger, Salazar’s evidence packet noted that a search of records in the FBI’s main criminal database, the National Crime Information Center, had turned up nothing on him. U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, however, produced a hit. As the agency administering the nation’s immigration and naturalization system, USCIS is responsible for many programs, including DACA. Using a subpoena to Twitter, investigators found the phone number Salazar used to create his account, then pulled up his DACA application. It was a match.

Law enforcement also looked for open-source materials, such as a July 22 YouTube interview that tied a character known online as “Mapache” — Salazar’s “known alias” — to Occupy ICE SATX. When Salazar tweeted information about ICE vans coming and going from the office, investigators filed it away as evidence of his involvement in a “covert surveillance” operation.

Once in custody, Salazar was taken to the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas. From his holding cell window, he could see two men in suits. One of them, he learned, was John Wigglesworth, an ICE attorney who had compiled his evidence packet. The second, he said, “was from San Antonio FBI.”

The pair walked into the cell and gave Salazar a blanket. “Just like the movies,” he said, they sat down and turned on a tape recorder. Salazar recalls the men saying that he was a “young man with a lot of opinions” and that they were interested in hearing them. “It was assumed that I had access to some sort of national threat information,” Salazar said, “because I was a protester.” Salazar recalled the two men dangling the possibility of helping with his immigration case if he would provide them with information on his political beliefs or friends.

“Obviously, if the FBI wants you to do something, you do the opposite in self-preservation,” Salazar said. “I kept my mouth shut.”

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Salazar’s friends protested his detention with signs bearing his nickname, mapache, which is Spanish for raccoon.

Photo: Courtesy of Occupy ICE San Antonio

An Investigation Unveiled

Back on the outside, Salazar’s friends struggled to piece together what had happened. The Texas immigrant rights organization RAICES had helped Salazar with his DACA renewal request a month earlier, and Cristian Sanchez, an attorney with the group, said it was a “pretty formulaic” affair. RAICES had heard nothing more about it until Salazar was corralled by ICE and told that his DACA application had been denied and that he no longer had legal status.

The letter informing RAICES of the denial arrived on Monday, August 6, when Salazar had already been detained. There was no appealing the decision, and reapplying for DACA was unlikely to succeed. What’s more, Salazar would be detained throughout the process, a prospect that the 18-year-old with no criminal record did not relish. His parents were also distraught at the thought of him staying in detention, Salazar and his lawyers said. Lacking legal status themselves, they couldn’t visit, and the entire ordeal had already been nerve-wracking.

With Salazar locked up at Pearsall, his lawyers ran through his options. There weren’t many: Other than DACA, there were few niches allowed by immigration law that Salazar fit into.

The reason given for the denial of Salazar’s DACA renewal was listed as “discretionary.” For Sanchez, that justification was “a clue that it was based on his activities as an activist.” The detention center interview with Wigglesworth and the FBI agent was another. Salazar’s father also told The Intercept that FBI agents had driven by their family home in early July, asking a neighbor questions about who lived there.

Following his arrest, Salazar’s case began to pick up local media attention. The San Antonio Express-News reported that the FBI’s interest had something to do with his social media presence “and/or instructional videos on how to make certain unspecified weapons,” citing local law enforcement who said that Salazar’s name was on “a special FBI database.” At first, Salazar had no idea why he had been investigated. In serving a warrant for this cellphone, the FBI mentioned an incendiary device, Salazar said. He thought that maybe it was because he and fellow protesters had chanted a song that referenced Molotov cocktails, but that was his best guess. The second time the FBI came around to see him in detention, he noted, they dropped the bomb-making references.

On August 22, Sanchez, along with immigration attorney and RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan, headed into court for a bond hearing in Salazar’s case. Salazar would appear only by video conferencing. Sanchez recalled starting out by “saying this was about his First Amendment rights, he’s never done anything violent — we had a letter from his church, from his film professor,” but then the government blindsided them, presenting the immigration attorneys with a thick packet of evidence containing photos of Salazar, lists of his tweets and Facebook postings, and recordings of his conversations with RAICES staff members and his friends while he was in detention.

In one of the recorded calls, a friend of Salazar’s who visited him in detention said he “thought it would make you happy knowing that we backed up into one of the guard’s truck and put a big fucking hole on it.” More troubling to the lawyers were excerpts from conversations with one of their staff. In them, a communications director for RAICES talked to Salazar about how the organization could help his case, efforts to have him come off as “a normal kid,” and the importance of being cautious with media. The attorneys felt that the calls were included as a message: “We felt like it was intimidation of RAICES, like, back off, we’re listening,” Sanchez said.

The judge gave Sanchez and Ryan just 30 minutes to review the materials and consult with their client via video. Up until that moment, Salazar said, he had forgotten about the tweets: “I knew I’d said dumb shit before, but I didn’t remember it. It was just stuff I tweeted and forgot about it.”

Salazar’s attorneys were in a bind. They believed that the government’s evidence was weak, but at the same time, they also knew it looked bad, and neither of them had experience with national security cases. They decided to rescind their bond request while they strategized what to do.

Video: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A First Amendment Black Hole

The evidence packet the government presented against Salazar reveals a slipperiness between the threat of criminal violence — if the tweets were taken seriously — and Salazar’s affiliation with legitimate political groups.

“Obviously, some of the tweets may be off-color and unpleasant,” Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told The Intercept. “But the Supreme Court has held that even speech that advocates the use of force or criminal activity is protected, unless it is likely to produce such action — and that’s an extremely stringent test,” she said. If the government “were able to show that any of these tweets or remarks actually translated into an actual violent act or unlawful activity soon after they were tweeted out, they might have a stronger case,” Krishnan went on to say. “But it doesn’t seem like that happened.”

Michael German, a former FBI agent who studies the bureau’s response to domestic terror for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, told The Intercept that the case “fits a pattern of the FBI working closely with ICE” to weaponize counterterrorism and immigration authorities “against people who have not shown to be a threat.”

“Taking someone’s hyperbolic threats and throwing it into the terrorism context authorizes abilities there wouldn’t be otherwise,” German said.

Salazar’s case combined a number of the Trump administration’s favorite bogeymen — antifa, undocumented immigrants, threats to law enforcement — into one package, onto which a terrorism label was slapped.

Salazar’s case combined a number of the Trump administration’s favorite bogeymen — antifa, undocumented immigrants, threats to law enforcement — into one package, onto which a terrorism label was slapped. It also fit the profile of a “disruption,” German explained, a tactic in which the FBI takes some action against an individual in place of bringing them to court. As detailed in an FBI counterterrorism guide previously published by The Intercept, a disruption could include deportation or a media campaign against someone.

As to whether Salazar’s tweets rose to the level of a terror threat, German described the “circular reasoning” that can govern local counterterrorism investigations.

“We’re lucky in this country that terrorism is very rare, but agents have to demonstrate statistical accomplishments each quarter,” he said. A disruption, German pointed out, counts as an achievement.

Since coming to office, the Trump administration has continued and expanded upon an American tradition of ignoring the demonstrably lethal threat of the far right while bringing considerable law enforcement resources to bear against political opponents on the left, German went on to say. Nowhere has this pattern been more prevalent than in the world of border and immigration issues.

The administration has targeted the faith-based organization No More Deaths, which provides aid to migrants in the Arizona desert, charging nine volunteers with federal misdemeanor charges for leaving water on federal lands where migrants are known to die, and bringing felony harboring and conspiracy charges against No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren for providing food, water, and shelter to two undocumented men over three days. (Warren faced 20 years in prison before a jury refused to convict him this summer; the government is still pursuing the harboring charges.) In the summer of 2018, when hundreds of protests were organized against the administration’s family separation policy, a private intelligence company cataloged their whereabouts and turned them over to the Department of Homeland Security. A few months later, as migrant caravans from Central America approached the border in Tijuana, a sprawling intelligence-gathering operation — carried out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, the FBI, ICE, and Mexican law enforcement — scrutinized journalists, activists, and lawyers working with and around the caravans.

Away from the border, immigrant activists have been targeted for deportation. Some, like Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York, have challenged their orders for deportation on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the government is retaliating against them for speaking out on immigrant rights. There have been more than a dozen such instances recorded — including 22-year-old DACA recipient Daniela Vargas, who was arrested minutes after giving a press conference; Manuel Duran, a Spanish-language journalist in Tennessee; and Jose Bello, a farmworker detained after he read a protest poem — and several other related lawsuits.

“The 2nd Circuit’s recent decision in Ravi’s case makes clear that even immigrants facing deportation don’t belong in a First Amendment black hole,” said Krishnan, of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Certainly, the Supreme Court has never held that the First Amendment establishes a double standard for U.S. citizens as opposed to immigrants, and specifically undocumented immigrants.”

Salazar’s case also reflects another longstanding law enforcement tradition: the targeting of anarchists.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 6:  Police officer D.M. Thau talks to a member of Antifa after an Antifa clash with a Trump supporter outside Freedom Plaza during a Proud Boys rally and an All Out D.C. rally on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A police officer talks to a member of antifa after a clash between attendees of the Proud Boys rally and the “All Out D.C.” rally in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 2019.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ever since protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1999, German said, the FBI and the rest of the U.S. security apparatus has engaged in “a two-decade-long campaign to amplify the idea that anarchists are a major problem.” After the attacks of September 11, 2001, anarchists were swept up in counterterrorism surveillance, which continued up to Trump’s first year in office, when the idea of a threat posed by antifa became an obsession for right-wing pundits and the president himself. As demonstrators descended on Washington, D.C. to protest Trump’s inauguration, and later when self-described antifa clashed with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the FBI and DHS reportedly categorized them as part of the “anarchist extremist” threat. Government lawyers threw the book at the “J20” inauguration day protesters. In February, The Guardian reported that the FBI had opened a domestic investigation into the group By Any Means Necessary after a 2016 protest against a Klu Klux Klan rally, during which a BAMN member was stabbed by a white supremacist.

Authorities have also been interested in anti-police violence protesters. Last year, Rakem Balogum, a Dallas-based activist who made anti-cop tweets that echoed Salazar’s, was the first person prosecuted as part of the FBI’s controversial monitoring of so-called black identity extremists, a term the bureau seemed to have invented.

Michelle Lee, a public affairs officer with the San Antonio FBI, declined to discuss the specifics of Salazar’s case, but insisted that “we don’t look at ideology or the expression of political views at all. Even if someone expresses abhorrent things, something that is racist, for instance, we couldn’t open an investigation. We have to have a threat of violence or an act of violence.” A spokesperson for ICE said in an email that “Salazar received full legal due process before, during and after his immigration proceedings.” She added that “ICE does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.”

There have been few actual instances of violence from left-wing ideologues, German said, while the militant white power movement, made up of groups like Patriot Prayer, which stormed through the Occupy ICE SATX camp days before Salazar’s arrest, has stacked up a body count in one domestic attack after another with little consequence.

“We’re seeing DHS labeling activists supporting migrants as a national security threats,” German said, as the far right is killing people. “It’s a waste of resources.”

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A screenshot from a video of an Occupy ICE protest at Camp Cicada in San Antonio.

Photo: Courtesy of Occupy ICE San Antonio

“I Couldn’t Just Stand There”

Amid the outrage over the administration’s family separation policy, Occupy ICE encampments sprung up around the country in 2018. The protest in San Antonio, which lasted about three weeks starting in mid-July, was never large: Organizers said it grew out of a vigil of about 35 people, but the overnighters were often as few as five. Salazar said the group had set up a free store, and they collected and distributed toys and snacks for the families who came to the ICE facility to check on the cases of their loved ones.

For Salazar, linking up with longstanding organizations such as Food Not Bombs and the Brown Berets provided a sense of community and purpose. The work wasn’t about charity, he explained, it was about solidarity, and that felt right to him.

“If I was for a nonprofit, I would be advocating for slow, gradual change or more laws or something like that, but I wouldn’t be advocating for my liberation as an undocumented person,” he explained. “I would just be advocating for relief or postponing the issue. I wanted my total liberation and the liberation of everyone else.”

“Everything that you enjoy day to day — your colors, your posters, your decorations, everything that you enjoy in your home — is stripped from you. You’re imprisoned.”

While it gave him meaning, Salazar knew the particular kind of political work he was attracted to has long been a magnet for law enforcement. “I’ve always known, just knowing the history of the United States,” he said, adding that he would sometimes joke with friends not to let him get arrested because he would then be deported. “I knew in the back of my head that it was always something that could happen, but I never wanted to let it stop me,” he said. “I couldn’t just stand there and let myself be beaten down and held hostage, not just my undocumented status, but the surveillance state and the higher requirements of having DACA.”

From Pearsall, Salazar was eventually moved to the Webb County Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from the cartel-controlled city of Nuevo Laredo. There, he would spend his final days in the U.S. Most of the men he was detained with were fathers. “Some of them had crossed multiple times. Most of them had lived in the United States longer than I’d been alive,” Salazar said. He also found himself in the company of young men his age who had slipped up, made a mistake, and were now en route to deportation, separation from their life and family in the U.S., and an increased chance of violent death in countries they barely knew.

In the U.S., immigration detention and criminal incarceration are definitionally distinct: the former administrative, the latter a punishment. In the lived experience, Salazar said, it’s all the same. “Everything that you enjoy day to day — your colors, your posters, your decorations, everything that you enjoy in your home — is stripped from you,” he said. “You’re imprisoned.”

Because it’s an administrative rather than criminal procedure, a person in immigration detention doesn’t have all of the same protections that a person in the criminal justice system does. And though the two populations are locked up all the same, government lawyers and judges in the immigration world are not required to present and consider the same level of evidence that they would in the criminal justice context before rendering a life-altering decision.

Salazar’s family and his attorneys faced a dilemma: They could keep fighting his case, on the basis that his tweets were no evidence of actual wrongdoing, but Salazar would remain incarcerated and his chances of success were slim. They worried that whatever the government tried to pin on him would harm his chances to come back to the United States in the future, or even to travel to other countries. They tried to put in for a voluntary removal so that he wouldn’t have a deportation on his record, but ICE refused.

“The respondent has engaged in conduct that is undesirable,” an ICE attorney said at a hearing last September. “He has incited violence.”

Video: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Exile

Ultimately, Salazar himself made the decision. Appearing by video before an immigration judge on the afternoon of September 14, 2018, he accepted his deportation.

“We know the government targeted him, and they never had to actually defend it or make a case out of it — all it did was look bad,” Sanchez, the attorney, said. “I was just like him at 18: I was an anarchist, I went to Food Not Bombs, I went to protests, but I was a citizen, so I was never punished for any of the stupid things I did. But they have this power to send a message to the other activists.”

The judge gave Salazar his deportation order. “ICE was waiting for me at the gate,” he said. “They had already packed up all my belongings.” Salazar recalls asking an officer if he could make a call and being told that he could not.

“Are you really going to send a teenager to a country he’s never been to without a phone call?” he asked.

Salazar was then driven in an unmarked vehicle to the bridge connecting Laredo and Nuevo Laredo and told to walk.

Salazar had faint memories of family members in Monterrey, but mostly they were strangers. Growing up, crossing the border to see family was an impossibility, as it still is. “I was held hostage by the United States of America for something that I didn’t have any control over,” Salazar said. “Now that I’ve been deported, I can’t cross to see the family that I have there in the United States.”

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Friends from Occupy ICE San Antonio visited Salazar in Monterrey, Mexico, in the winter of 2018.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Over Christmas break, some of his friends from Occupy ICE took a bus from Austin to come visit. They talked, reminisced, and explored the city together. Salazar smiled often and laughed easily, but the anger and frustration was never far from his mind. Salazar has long believed that deportations are an act of violence. His experience has not changed that.

“What else would you call being torn away from your family or your home, from your job, from everything from your whole life, and being contained in a prison, and then at the end of it, forcefully removed from a country?” he asked. “None of this is your choice. None of it was my choice. I didn’t choose to be in detention. I didn’t choose to be undocumented. I didn’t commit any offense. And I was forcefully torn away. I was put in handcuffs, dragged into a truck, locked up. That is violence.”

To consider whether the punishment fit the crime in Salazar’s case, one would first have to get around the fact that he was never charged with a crime and that the government wouldn’t call his deportation a punishment. Whatever it was, Salazar argues, it was far beyond the realm of anything a reasonable person would consider proportional. “Is the correct response to these kind of vulgar tweets — is the correct response to abduct a teenager and imprison him for 40 days, and then toss them out of their country into a country they’ve never known?” he asked. “Without a phone call? Without any kind of resource? To exile? To exile somebody?”

“I think that’s archaic,” he said. “And I think that’s barbaric.”

Video: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

“You’re Always Going to Be Separated”

Salazar’s first full day in Mexico fell on Mexican Independence Day, a day when Mexicans commemorate the beginning of their revolt against Spanish rule with fireworks and fiestas. As the celebrations came around again this year, Salazar reflected on how much had changed since then.

Since being deported, Salazar has stopped using he/him pronouns. “I’m a gender abolitionist,” they told The Intercept. “I’m an abolitionist in general, I think.”

With help from Monterrey-based relatives, Salazar was able to find a small apartment, paid for in part with donations they had received following their deportation. They adopted two cats (Emma and Bonnot, for famed anarchists Emma Goldman and Jules Bonnot), and a hamster (Marcos, for the Mexican rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos). They spent six months working at a call center mostly staffed by deportees, offering customer support to people having trouble with their dialysis machines.

While the work itself wasn’t “the most awful thing that you can do with your life,” Salazar said, the mindless, day-to-day grind took its toll. They described it as “one big depressive episode.”

One day, after waking up late, they decided to make a change. Salazar enrolled in film school in Monterrey, taking a first step on their longstanding dream of becoming a documentarian. When we last spoke, they were three weeks into the program. Still struggling with Spanish, and with a course load that includes creative writing and theory of culture, the process hasn’t been easy. “I’ve already almost cried twice in class,” Salazar said.

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Sergio Salazar greets their cat, Emma, at their apartment in Monterrey in December 2018.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

These days, when Salazar imagines their parents, it’s in digitized form, displayed on the electronic screen of a phone. “I miss my family in the States,” they said. “I really miss them. It’s hard.” On the last day they were home in the U.S., Salazar got into a vicious argument with their brother and stormed out of the house. The two haven’t spoken since. Salazar readily acknowledges that, in the months leading up to the deportation, they were consumed with anger. “Of course, I was angry and of course, I was vulgar,” they said — being an undocumented, anarchist teenager living in Trump’s America, it comes with the territory. The anger is still there, Salazar said, though they’ve learned to manage it better, and it’s mixed with regret. “Seeing it now, especially from afar,” they said, “it’s becomes an uglier picture. I’m angry at myself that I took it out on my family the way that I did.”

For Salazar, returning to the rhythm of being in school, doing homework, getting along with classmates and teachers, is one thing. Being a deportee is another.

“Every single time I meet someone, it’s like, you’ve gotta just reopen that can of trauma,” Salazar said. “It’s either that or you’re lying to everyone you know.” In explaining what happened, Salazar is forced to confront the same question of belonging that they’ve wrestled with their entire life.

“I’m not from Mexico. I was born here, but I do not know this country,” they said. “But I’m not from the States either, because I was never accepted in the States.”

“I guess that’s kind of like, what life as a deportee is — constantly being reminded that you’re a deportee,” Salazar added. “It’s branded on you. It’s part of your identity. And it’s something that filters into every single aspect of your social life.”

When Salazar and the other members of Occupy ICE San Antonio started their protest, the country was consumed with the horrors of family separation, manifested in the Trump administration’s program of taking children from their parents at the border, but the truth is that the immigration system has broken apart families for generations. “The border and growing up undocumented means you’re always going to be separated,” Salazar said — it was true when they were a child, and it’s true now. “Even if one day I’m able to cross the border again, that doesn’t mean that at one point, I wasn’t separated and torn away from my family.”