By Pato Che
“Let’s cross to Eagle Pass through Piedras Negras.” The thought sounded pretty reasonable, mostly due to our attachment to Coahuila, a Mexican state separated from the United States by the waters of the Bravo River that has strong sociocultural bonds with Texas (which used to be part of Mexico until 1836).
That day we woke up very early – we even took a shower – and faced Uncle Sam’s backdoor with a big smile, a mix of jitters and joy that began to fade as we moved along the international bridge.
We got to the guard house soon enough, right before the crossing was overrun by a crowd of paisanos (people from the same country) that work, study, and buy groceries on “the other side.”
The “permits” office, which Mexicans need in order to go beyond “mile 30” and foreigners to cross even an inch of the borderline, was empty. Mama Mihi, who had stood by us since Saltillo, and Tadeo, who had joined the expedition in Sabinas, already had their permits, so they waited outside next to Chai.
A couple of pocho officers (children of Mexicans born in the U.S.) interrupted their pleasant chat when they saw us go in.
– What do you want? – said agent Gomez, without even greeting us.
– Good morning, we’d like to get a permit– answered Pato Che with a hesitant Mexican-Argentinian accent.
– What permit?
– Well… the permit… – The question caught us by surprise, but we proceeded to explain our route to Alaska.
– Let me see your papers– said Mr. Gómez with a peculiar temper.
An Argentinian Passport and three border crossing cards were put on the desk.
– Your papers, I said: bank accounts, proof of residency…
We glanced at each other puzzled, for it was the first time we were asked for something like that to get in the Gabacho*.
– I’m sorry, we didn’t know… the thing is, in Laredo…
– This is not Laredo – he stated harshly.
From then on, the communication went south. Even though we spoke different languages indeed, it seemed like we came from different planets. We tried to negotiate in English, but it was impossible. Finally, Gomez took out a list of “requisites” written in an almost indecipherable Spanish.
– Are you forbidding us to enter the country? – asked Pato Che.
– No, but without these documents, you can’t go in. – End of the conversation.
The terrorist excuse
n the end, we agreed to try and print everything within our reach, and went back to Mexican territory.
We set things in motion at a mall in Piedras Negras. Mamá Mihi pumped up Robert’s bank account, Pato Che printed his puny bank statements, Emma improvised some letters from her employer, Mihi took care of the proof of residency, and Tadeo looked after Chai.
We went back to the guard house after noon. This time, we had to get in line.
While we waited, we witnessed at least two cases of authority abuse shielded under the wing of the Patriot Act, and a poster of the Twin Towers covered in flames that read: “a terrorist needs to be lucky only once.”
The first case was a young man, who was so happy for being successful in a Gestapo-like questioning (in an isolated room with agents playing good cop-bad cop), that he almost forgot his cellphone, which was taken and carefully inspected.
The second: an old man whom officer Rodríguez never got tired of bullying. While the poor man was trying to remember in order to answer the trick-questions (what color is the house, car, dog… of your kid living in the U.S.), the officers mocked him in English: this one’s a liar.
You shall not pass
The first one on the bench was Pato Che, whose charming smile got through officer Jiménez’s defenses. “Pay and come back for your passport.”
Next was Mihi, who always runs into trouble when crossing borders. This time, however, his huge bank accounts did the job. “Pay and come back for your passport.”
The third one was Robert, who convinced the officer that the movements in his bank account were actually deposits from his patients due to therapy sessions via Skype. Gulp “Pay and come back for your passport.”
The only one left was Emma, who faced officer Jimenez’s wrath.
– D’you think this letter has any validity? Anyone can do this – stated the officer bluntly.
– But they just e-mailed it to me – said Emma extremely nervous.
– How long do you intend to stay in U.S. soil?
– Uh… I don’t know… the same as them, I guess… until we get to Alaska… Three weeks, maybe?
– Listen, with these papers, you don’t even qualify for a day. I can’t give you the permit.
A blast of frustration took over Emma, who used to cross the border since she was a little girl with her aunts, and never had problems in many other countries, neither as a folk-artist nor as a backpacker. Tears of anger and disappointment ran down her face. She could not bear the fact that her dream was being smashed against an icy border wall.
Hey you, uncle Sam
Pato Che, moved by this outrage, got closer to negotiate. And despite Emma’s plead, who was afraid Chai would not be allowed in the country, he pulled out the copy of City Club magazine in which we had made the front cover with the dog.
– Look, we are not lying. Here’s the proof –, he said handing the copy to officer Sánchez.
The agents’ look magically shifted. While officer Jiménez left to discuss it with her superior, Sánchez flicked through the magazine and Méndez entered our website.
– Will the dog resist the cold in Alaska? – said Méndez smiling.
Chai – hidden inside Adelita –, would once more be the light at the end of the tunnel.
We explained Mr. Sánchez that Emma and Mihi’s mother, who guaranteed her children’s support and was currently working for the Mexican Government, was waiting outside.
– And, why didn’t she come? – Good question!
Mama Mihi backed us up. However, another round back to Mexican territory was necessary to print more documents.
The truth is that, after more than seven hours of negotiating, everyone finally got their permit to go into the empire. However, yet more surprises awaited us in the inspection area.
– Put your dog in that cage and open the doors of the vehicle – demanded Mr. Richard, the first and only gringo (American) officer we had to deal with. As incredible as it may seem, on the borders with Mexico, American agents offer a better treatment than those distant relatives who have forgotten their origins.
Richard showed interest in our journey, and was only concerned about the amount of circus material.
– You know you cannot work in the U.S., right? – he said in English.
– Yes, sir. Sometimes we perform shows for NGO’s who work with homeless children.
– That’s fine. How long are you staying in the U.S.?
– It depends on the weather and the vehicle. We’re hoping to get to Alaska before winter.
Mr. Richard frowned.
– You look like a smart guy – he said to Pato Che, who agreed with the compliment like all Argentinians would–, you know you can’t overstay.
– Yes, sir. It says here very clearly: six months and multiple entries.
– No! The fact that the permit says that, doesn’t mean you can stay for that long…
Pato Che felt like discussing that point, for it is one of the most bizarre issues in U.S. migrating politics: the lack of an exit registry, which is almost an insult to American taxpayers, who pay their taxes in hope of better security.
And the fact is that any thief, rapist, murderer, and even a terrorist, who has committed a crime in the United States, can easily leave the country, because on the Mexican side there is no registry of migration either, only Customs.
Imagine then, a group of terrorists that after making an attack, abandon the country, hat in hand, only to enjoy a margarita in the middle of the Mayan Riviera. They do not need a lot of “luck”, so to speak.
– Yeah, sure – answered Pato Che biting his tongue.
The irony of security
But the “permit” issue has yet another angle. It turns out that when it says “multiple entries,” establishing a limit of six months of legal stay (regardless whether someone wants to visit for a single day or even make a stop due to a flight), it is unclear towards its use and validity.
At the back of the migratory form, totally contradicting the term “multiple entries,” there is a text in small letters that suggests handing over the permit to a U.S. authority when exiting the country, but to whom? When you leave the country, there are none!
So you are left with two alternatives:
1) Give the permit back to the personnel of the airline or bus-line with which you are leaving the country. Imagine again – if you can –, handing over this “sacred” document, that took so much bureaucracy, time, and money to obtain (100 dollars for the visa paperwork – regardless of its rejection – and 5 dollars for each permit), to a chubby Mexican bus driver. How to know its fate?
2) The “safest” option is to go back to the United States borderline once you have left the country, get in line, find the permit office, and give it to an officer who, in most cases, just tears it to pieces!
A painful casualty
Even when Mr. Richard gave us the go, with a warm “Good luck in your journey!” and all, the surprises did not end there.
It turns out the American officers sent a pocho officer – who was clearly in training – to interrogate us. Ironically, the issue were not the vehicles – of which they didn’t even ask for the ownership or insurance documents –, nor the dog – of whom they didn’t even verify the vaccines –, but a “valid” permit in mama Mihi’s wallet that she had completely forgotten about.
Without any instinct or subtleness whatsoever, the officer took it against the most solvent person in the group and the least interested on staying in the United States.
– I believe you want to stay in the United States of America –, claimed the officer with an accent as funny as it was irritating.
She confiscated her phone and searched her entire purse on the spot. When she found a thin wad of dollars, the agent behaved as if she had just found an international financial criminal.
– And, what are you planning to do with all this money?
The question was ridiculous, but Emma senior calmly explained she would pay off a credit debt in a retail chain, which was partly true (the rest was meant to help us get to Houston, from where she would go back to Mexico).
When Pato Che got closer to intercede, the officer reached for her gun and ordered him to stand down immediately.
In the end, there was no way of explaining the situation to her. The guardian of the law tore Mama Mihi’s permit in two, and she was only allowed to cross over to the border area, like all Mexicans with a border crossing card. She could have returned to Mexico and ask for another permit, but it was not worth it to go through the Kafkan labyrinth all over again.
So with deep disappointment, we said good-bye to our heroine in a simple parking lot at a commercial mall in Eagle Pass, from there we made our way to the heart of the promised land.
The Mihi brothers walked their mother to the nearest street on the border, so she could cross the international bridge by foot. Emma hugged her brother, full of tears, who whispered to her ear “our mom is so cool, right?”
Oh, and for the record: no one said “Welcome to the U.S.A.”
That’s just a thing of the American dream.
*Gabacho: from the French gavache, a native from one of the towns at the hillside of the Pyrenees. The term started to be used by the Spanish to pejoratively talk about French invaders. In Mexico it was also used to refer to the French invaders, but with the use of language, Americans also started to be referred to as “gabachos” (also called “gringos”). Therefore, going to the United States is the same as going to the “Gabacho.”