Legally immigrating to the United States can be a long and difficult process. Potential immigrants to this country have to maintain a job and clear criminal records or they can face deportation to their home country. It isn’t easy, but for those who achieve it, it is well worth it.
To add to the difficulty for immigrants, tattoos can also play a role in their being denied a green card to the become United States citizens. Many tattoos in certain countries and cultures have connections to gangs and other criminal organizations. Certain tattoos can affiliate a person from Japan with the Yakuza, certain iconography is associated with the Russian mafia, and various Latin street gangs have tattoos that identify their affiliations.
The issue with tattoos and gangs in Latin America has become a recent issue for immigrants from Mexico. The Wall Street Journal ran a recent article profiling two immigrants named Hector Villalobos and Rolando Mora Huerta. Villalobos has been working in the United States since 2006, but when he went back to Mexico to meet with an immigration officer about his processing for his green card, he was stopped at the border. He had two tattoos of the classic laughing/crying theatre masks—which can mean “Laugh Now, Cry Later” to certain gangs—on his back. Though Villalobos simply got the tattoos because he liked the artwork, that specific tattoo has been tied to Mexican gangs, and his re-entry into the country has been detained. He is awaiting review of his application, with no date set.
A similar situation happened to Huerta, who had been married to an American citizen, when he was arrested in 2008 for being the country illegally. His record showed only minor offenses, such as speeding. He was deported and in 2010 was interviewed at the United States consulate in Juarez, Mexico to attempt to get a visa. He had similar tattoos as Villalobos, though he denied any gang affiliations. His visa was denied to “have affiliation with a criminal organization”. Both men’s families are seeking legal action claiming profiling.
The trouble for these men is not unique in the world of tattoos and popular culture. There are instances of tattoos that marked one as affiliated with certain organizations that go back centuries. Yet as time has went on, the popular culture as time goes on and unfortunately law abiding citizens can find themselves in trouble with the law. With worries of gangs coming across the border with Latin American immigrants, the justice department can be accused of being “hyper cautious”, yet maybe they rightfully so given the current troubles that some of our southern neighbors are dealing with.
Unfortunately for these two men, their families, and others like them the love of artwork can has landed them in trouble with the law due to the lack of knowledge of the symbolism of their tattoos. Perhaps the moral of this story is not so much about immigrants being wrongfully deported and associated with gangs. Perhaps it is also a warning to those that get tattoos to make sure they research they symbolism before they get inked.