This year, Laos native Yong Xiong started at a high school in St. Paul with plenty of other international students, those who speak English as a second language, and many new to this country and culture.
Xiong is both, but she's also different than all of her fellow students: She's 22, according to her passport, which only recently had her age listed as 16, as spelled out on an episode of the This American Life radio show which aired last weekend.
Just last month, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to drop its claim that Xiong, her fiance, other relatives, and her passport were all lying, and that Xiong was the potential victim of sex trafficking.
Xiong's story starts out predictably enough: She passed an interview process with the U.S. embassy in Laos, which saw to it that her paperwork was in order and that her marriage was legit.
The twist came after she arrived in Chicago in 2017. The 19-year-old Hmong woman thought she'd be processed through and meet her waiting fiance. Instead, a Customs and Border Protection agent pressed Xiong on her age and birthdate.
The diminutive (4-foot-7) Xiong answered their questions as best she could -- there was no interpreter present -- but "at least five" customs officers decided she "appeared to be under the age of 18 based on her physical characteristics and childlike mannerisms."
(Whether anyone's blind, deaf, and dumb speculation was influenced by the fact that Xiong's first name is only one letter off the word "young" doesn't come up on This American Life, but you bet your ass it will here.)
A search of her bag produced pictures where Xiong looked less than happy to be depicted with the fiance, a trait family members blame on her not liking to be photographed; agents read into these as her being "physically scared" of him.
An interpreter was summoned and Xiong seemingly passed with flying colors on questions used to determine if someone's being trafficked. But that wasn't enough for one agent, who wrote that her answers "appear to be" coached. And right then and there, they wrote down a new birthday -- January 1, 2000 -- that made Xiong a minor.
Later, they'd change Xiong's birth date yet again to make her even younger, and give her the name "Jane Doe" while she was held captive at a children's shelter. These are just a few of the disturbing facts of her case, one that hinged on an imprecise method of ages -- Xiong's teeth were those of someone between "14.76 to 19.56 years" -- and the suspicion of agents who thought she was too small and don't get why you wouldn't say "cheese" and fake it for the cameras.
The whole thing's worth a listen, and it's a good reminder that for all the tragic and scandalous actions we're carrying out with raids and concentration camps, this country is perfectly willing to act like assholes to immigrants who just wanna get out of the airport and get married.