"Security measures enacted after 9/11 are impeding the inflow of scientific talent that helps energize American universities.... If the red tape is not untangled soon, it could cause long-term harm to universities and high-tech industries." -- (Visa Quagmire, The New York Times Editorial, May 17, 2004)
Recently I crossed the border to Mexico and came right back. I'm no coyote; I'm the boyfriend. Aviva is an Israeli who needed a new
visa. She had to leave the country in order to come back for six more months.
I love Mexico. I showed Aviva where people retire to Rosarito Beach, in cliff houses that cost less than $100,000, while the same would be $4 million in El Norte. Aviva has trekked India and Tibet, and to her Rosarito looked "like Gaza." After all day at the consulate processing her visa, we drank celebratory smoothies, got some jicama to take home to my mother and bought seashell necklaces because beautiful poor children broke our hearts selling them to us.
At the welcome-back booth, an American officer slapped an orange sticker onto my windshield and waved us to "the brown building over there." Secondary Inspection Area. Suddenly a blue-clad officer/agent appeared at the passenger window, speaking Hebrew.
Somehow we'd found the Border Patrol's "Middle East expert." Friendly young Agent Kohn said Aviva was the second Israeli he helped today. (Or delayed, depending on how you look at it.)
"I'm your one-man homeland security," he said. "You know, it would take a lot longer if you didn't get me."
Hmm. This would take a while. But hey, we were only in the midst of the busiest border crossing in the world. What's not to enjoy?
Israel, said Kohn -- and as any AIPAC-nik knows -- is "a special interest country." He told Aviva he was really sorry he had to "treat her this way, like all the Arab countries." (To the U.S. Customs Comment Card evaluation: "The officer was: patient/courteous/careful/abused his authority/rude/unprofessional." Aviva could later add: "Apologetic.")
There is a convincing swagger to these agents. They demand "Papeles!" with new authoritarian authority. A "Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement" has replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but who can tell who's with what part of the Fed anymore? (They haven't changed the pamphlets yet.) In the last six months, a half-million busts have taken place at the Arizona border. Kohn looked like he could easily toss my Toyota back over the border. He busted people while we waited: two guys with tattoos and an American flag on the back of their California pickup.
"Smuggling previous deports," Kohn informed us regarding the coyote and rider.
Aviva needed an "I-94" form, Kohn said, reading her passport. A visa says you are allowed to enter the United States and the I-94 reports when you entered.
"Why were you in Jordan?"
It was 1997, she replied. Every Israeli went to visit Jordan. It was okay to do that then.
He wanted to know what she did at the university.
"All it takes is a little vial," he warned. "It could kill a lot of people."
But Aviva looks like Aviva so he kept smiling. He told us why he didn't like Mexico: "They say there's a $100,000 on our heads. Every one of us who works here."
Then his shift was over and he had to get another agent to run Aviva's parents' names though the database.
We sat 40 minutes, observing two playful "explosive detection canines" being trained and petted by officers. Such comical pups! Mexicans walked by with their hands behind their backs. We saw a plastic bag of pot as big as a pillow. Confiscation is an impressive thing -- unless it's being done to you. I worried they'd find my hunk of jicama. Or the generic Viagra I purchased in one of the Tijuana farmacias -- "Â¿Que es disfuncion erectile?" -- for my buddies back in Los Angeles.
"This is unbelievable," said Aviva as one bust after another went down around us. "Here he goes to a car," she pointed to a sniffing spaniel.
"Dogs always go to cars," I said, hot and tired after two hours. After Aviva's parents check out on the computer, she paid $6 for the I-94. (The visa was $104, about 1,000 pesos) Soon we were driving in El Norte. I told her how I really didn't believe in borders. We should be free citizens, students of the world with no princes over us. Like that philosopher whatsisname wrote, I said.
"You have many ideas," Aviva said. "Why don't you run for president?"
One-hundred-and-fifty miles later, home. Aviva told me she wants me to take her to Canada in six months. Viva Aviva!
Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio's "All Things Considered" and "The Savvy Traveler" and has a tale Saturday on the new show "Public Radio Weekend" on KPCC.