Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
I was in Mexico and headed to San Diego to attend my friend Marina’s wedding. I was flying into Tijuana, right on the US-Mexico border, and then crossing into California.
Except the San Ysidro border crossing was notoriously difficult coming from the Mexican side. According to what I read, heading north one should expect to have to wait up to three hours while US border agents interrogated suspected “illegal immigrants.” Americans driving south through the same border crossing, though, shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes.
Well, I was heading north. And I already had my own reason to want to avoid trouble at the border. So I took the easier way out: From Tijuana airport, which immediately abuts the US-Mexico border, I took the “Cross-Border Express,” or CBX, which is a skybridge that transits directly onto US soil.
Only passengers who recently got off a plane into Tijuana are allowed to use CBX. Which is to say, only the relatively wealthy, the upper-middle class, people who can afford to fly, are allowed to use CBX. The riffraffs? They are on buses held up at San Ysidro. To be let through, I had to show my boarding pass for the flight into Tijuana.
Indeed the entry process at CBX was surprisingly easy for me. Nervously I watched as the CBP officer flipped through my passport only to realize that he was barely paying any attention. “Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Mexico City. But that was only a layover, I started in…”
“Where are you going to?” He interrupted, apparently not interested in the complete answer.
My biggest hurdle getting in turned out to be the arrival/departure form. They used to just give this to you when you arrived. But now they wanted six dollars for it. The officer sent me to the office labeled “Permits” where half a dozen Mexicans were ahead of me in line. It didn’t take long to get my turn. And as one officer took my fingerprints he chatted with his neighbor in the next seat.
“I know the look she was going for, too,” said Officer Gutierrez, presumably referring to a mutual acquaintance of theirs. “She wanted to look like Kim Kardashian’s mom.”
“But she went overboard,” Officer Reynoso replied, “and fucked up her lips.”
Gutierrez gave me back my passport and my arrival/departure form and waved me on. Not that they weren’t courteous enough toward me, but I couldn’t remember anywhere else in the world where border officials talked this way in front of me. (Granted, I wouldn’t have known if, say, Thai officials talked like this with each other in front of me in Thai, or Greek officials in Greek, and so on.)
I left them behind, kept walking and entered the US without any further issues. But I felt vaguely dirty about it, somehow implicated in something that made me ever so slightly ashamed. A moment’s reflection showed me what it was: I had taken advantage of the privileges available to me, as a relatively wealthy person who could enjoy the VIP treatment of CBX instead of San Ysidro, and as the non-brown holder of a Western passport so that the officers glossed over all the Arabic and Farsi in it. Here I was categorized with the upper class, which was exactly what I wanted to avoid trouble, which was why now I felt implicated in something untoward. Because I knew what it was like to have the opposite happen.
The US-Mexico border is a place that delineates in stark terms the privileges that our categories of race and class and nationality confer, or, in mirror image, take away. The rich get CBX, the poor San Ysidro. US nationals wait 15 minutes going south, Mexicans wait three hours going north. In their uniforms, Gutierrez and Reynoso were US federal agents with the authority and privileges that that status conferred, enough that they felt no compunction about speaking unprofessionally in front of us all. Out of uniform and elsewhere in American society, at least on occasions, they might only be classified as Hispanics and afforded less than the full panoply of privileges that others enjoyed.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."